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Erasing Serra Won't Erase History

Larkin is next to Donner is next to – Serra? On February 2nd, the ASSU Senate debated a resolution calling on Stanford to respect Native Americans and reduce social stratification by “updating all property in its jurisdiction that bears the name of Father Junipero Serra”. Denouncing Father Serra’s efforts to assimilate indigenous Americans and his violent tactics, the resolution urges Stanford to remove Father Serra’s name and nominally extends this argument to a more generalized call to reexamine Stanford’s naming conventions.

Father Serra, an eighteenth-century Catholic missionary, evangelized throughout the American West, and was canonized in 2015 by Pope Francis. In his quest to colonize modern California, he assimilated Native tribes he encountered; as many as 100,000 indigenous people lost their lives between 1769 and 1821 from a combination of brutal treatment and disease. These acts were, in a modern light, reprehensible, and I cannot fault the intentions of the resolution’s author and sponsors. But the claim that we should reject names for buildings and roads, because the person in question committed an act condemned by contemporary morals or offended groups, is deeply flawed.

While the resolution nominally urges Stanford to whitewash other historical figures, it focuses almost exclusively on Father Serra. It never explicitly calls for removing the names of Tresidder or Jordan – both noted eugenicists – from student centers and halls, or for renaming Stanford, given that hundreds of Asian Americans died building Leland Stanford’s railroads. It also fails to reference the mural of Che Guevara – a guerilla revolutionary who callously murdered hundreds of people – in Stern dining. To deem only Father Serra sufficiently evil to be censored is an insult to other communities who have suffered at the hands of past imperialists. One Senator even noted during the debate that we no longer “owed” Father Serra because he had not donated to the university. If the resolution’s supporters want to remove someone’s name from campus infrastructure for his or her past actions, then donor status should surely be irrelevant.

Read the rest over at the Stanford Review.

Brandon Camhi is an editor emeritus of The Stanford Review and a senior majoring in economics.

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