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UC Berkeley removes name of man with racist anti-Chinese legacy from law school building

Boalt Hall pictured in 2015 via Wikimedia Commons

UC Berkeley announced in a university release on Thursday that it has removed the name of John Boalt from its law school in acknowledgement of his anti-Chinese legacy. This is the first time a Berkeley building has been “denamed” because the character or actions of its namesake were deemed too out of sync with the institution’s values.   

“There is no question that building names are powerful symbols for those who walk across our campus,” UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ wrote in a letter sent to the campus community Thursday. “I believe that removing the Boalt name from our law building — while still acknowledging our ties to the Boalt family — will help us recognize a troubled part of Berkeley’s history while better supporting the diverse membership of our academic community.”

Boalt did not attend or teach at the law school, but his name remained attached to it due to a donation from his widow. For decades, many students at Berkeley referred to the law school building complex as Boalt Hall, and law school graduates were often known as “Boalties.” 

During the 19th century, a time when large numbers of Chinese came to the United States, Boalt called Chinese people unassimilable liars, murderers and misogynists that provoked “unconquerable repulsion.” In addresses regarding Chinese immigrants, he advocated for “extermination” rather than reconciliation, helping to catalyze support for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

In 2017, attorney and Berkeley law lecturer Charles Reichmann published an op-ed that brought Boalt’s history to light. According to a university release, Reichmann wasn’t sure at first what to do when he discovered Boalt’s racist writings while researching the Asian experience in California.

“But after a while,” he said, “it began to seem disconsonant, unbearable, even, to be among so many students with a Chinese ethnic background, indeed, a great many from China itself, when the man for whom the classroom building is named denied their humanity.”

Berkely professor Paul Fine, co-chair of the Building Name Review Committee, said Boalt’s name on a building is a racist symbol that reinforces a history of white supremacy. He added that students who learn about this history can then feel excluded, as if there is an endorsement of racism by the institutions themselves.  

The discovery of Boalt’s views was indeed jarring to third-year law school student Ryan Sun, the LA Times reports

“I was … trying to achieve whatever dreams or passions that I had, and it felt like I was not meant to be here,” Sun said of his reaction to Boalt’s past. “You’re attending class in a building named after someone who doesn’t want you to be there in the building, let alone in the country.”

The Chinese American told the LA Times that one of the reasons he chose Berkeley was the area’s Asian American community. At the law school, Sun currently serves as the editor in chief of Berkeley’s Asian American Law Journal and has many Asian American and Pacific Islander friends. 

He was at the law school entrance at 7 a.m. Thursday to watch the letters come down and said that walking into the building that morning was a gratifying experience that provided a sense of closure, according to the LA Times.

Ph.D. law student Alex Mabanta, who was the graduate student representative on the Building Name Review Committee, said that the removal of Boalt’s name sends a message to Asian American and Pacific Islander law students and students of color. 

“You matter,” Mabanta said. “Racial justice matters. We want you to belong to Berkeley Law.”

Boalt Hall will now be known as The Law Building. The university has also announced plans to develop a visible public record of the history in response to a committee’s recommendation to show a commitment to restorative justice. 

Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky said he realizes there were strong feelings on all sides of the Boalt Hall Case but is pleased that all parties that carefully studied the facts have come to the same conclusion that it would be “inappropriate” to continue honoring Boalt in light of current knowledge of his views and actions.

“Campuses across the country are dealing with similar questions,” the dean added, “and I think that our careful investigation and civil discussion hopefully can be a model for others grappling with these difficult issues.”

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