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Berkeley strips name from its law school building, citing namesake’s racist views

A workman removes Boalt Hall lettering from a law school building at the University of California at Berkeley. (Roxanne Makasdjian/University of California at Berkeley)

The University of California at Berkeley has renamed a prominent part of its law school, stripping the name of a 19th-century man whose racist views run counter to the values of the institution, school officials announced Thursday.

The name “Boalt Hall” was chipped off the main classroom building at the UC-Berkeley School of Law after several years of study and debate over the legacy of John Henry Boalt, a California lawyer whose widow donated to the school. The Boalt name had become synonymous with the school and its graduates, often known as “Boalties.” The structure will now be known as “the Law Building.”

In 2017, a lecturer at the law school, Charles Reichmann, discovered a speech written by Boalt about Chinese immigration to the country, which had been surging after the California Gold Rush.

“I found it shocking, because the speech is not a dispassionate political proposal,” Reichmann said. “It was filled with crude racial stereotypes, it was virulently racist and anti-Chinese,” and antithetical to the mission and values of the school, he said.

He acknowledged that for some who cherish their memories of the school, it could be hard to think of it with another name, and that some people are skeptical about renaming. He said he was seeking not to erase history but to broadcast it.

“I thought the historical record should be brought forth,” Reichmann said, “and people should see what he did and what his contribution was in the 19th century.”

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Universities throughout the country have been reconsidering — and in some cases upending — institutional traditions, deciding that names honoring past benefactors whose actions were racist or offensive are no longer acceptable.

In some cases, the people in question have complex legacies and deep ties to an institution, such as John C. Calhoun at Yale University and Woodrow Wilson at Princeton University. At UC-Berkeley, the question was more straightforward, in part because Boalt had neither attended nor taught at the school, and the question of removing the Boalt name moved through committees, surveys, meetings and approvals, ending with this week’s endorsement by University of California President Janet Napolitano.

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When UC-Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky notified alumni, faculty, staff and students in 2018 that a committee had recommended dropping the name, he received more than 700 responses, with intense feelings on both sides. About 60 percent welcomed the name change, while about 40 opposed it, he said.

Others asked what the implications would be for places named after Founding Fathers.

“There are many reasons to continue to honor Thomas Jefferson or George Washington, although they were slave owners,” Chemerinsky said. “We couldn’t find any reason to continue to honor John Boalt.”

Boalt made profoundly offensive statements about Chinese people and Chinese Americans, Chancellor Carol Christ explained in a message to the campus Thursday morning, “suggesting that it would be better to ‘exterminate’ those of Chinese descent than to have them assimilate.

“Indeed, Boalt’s principal historical legacy is not of any significant contribution to either the law or to UC, but of helping lay the groundwork for the infamous Chinese exclusion policies of the late 19th century,” she wrote. “Boalt’s views clearly stand in opposition to our university’s values of inclusion and our belief in the relationship between diversity and excellence.”

In his 1877 speech, Boalt began with the words, “Two non-assimilating races never yet lived together harmoniously on the same soil, unless one of these races was in a state of servitude to the other.”

His words were repeated on the floor of the Senate, Reichmann said. At a time when violent attacks had been committed against Chinese people, Boalt legitimized racism against them and energized support for the country’s first ban on people based on their race or nationality, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to become citizens of the United States until a new law was passed in the 1940s.

Reaction to the announcement Thursday was overwhelmingly positive, Chemerinsky said.

On campus, informal change had already taken hold, said Alex Mabanta, a second-year doctoral student enrolled in an interdisciplinary program at the law school, with student organizations dropping the Boalt name long before Thursday’s announcement. It is a landmark decision, said Mabanta, the graduate student representative on the Building Name Review Committee — a decision now codified globally. “This is enormously significant,” he said.

A committee of faculty and staff appointed by the dean will work to create a visible public record of the history.

“We want to remember why it was named Boalt,” Chemerinsky said, “and why we changed it.”

An earlier version of the headline on this article incorrectly stated that Boalt was a benefactor of UC-Berkeley. Boalt’s widow donated to the school; he did not.