Astute readers will note that we didn’t print an issue last Wednesday. Not because there was a shortage of news, mind you, nor due to a tragically misplaced banana peel in the Vanguard office, but for a much simpler reason: a tall guy with a dumb hat and a beard got in our way. Happy birthday, Mr. President.
Yes, classes were preempted for everyone’s second- and third-favorite February holidays: Lincoln’s birthday on Wednesday the 12th, and Washington’s birthday on the 17th. (Number one being V-Day, of course. Groundhog Day is pseudo-pagan nonsense and Punxsutawney Phil is a scuzzy rat-faced little shit. Ash Wednesday? Don’t make me laugh.) And it makes sense that we have two separate holidays for two separate chunks of Mount Rushmore – according to C-SPAN’s octennial Presidential Historians Survey, Lincoln has come on top in every single list, and Washington’s been a close second. And today, they will escape my wrath. No, it’s the #3 entry on their list that’s the target of my ire this week: a man inextricably tied to this campus, even though he shouldn’t be; a man whose name is inscribed on the facade of the building I spend approximately twelve bajillion hours a week in.
I refer, of course, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, figurative architect of the New Deal, and, by extension, the literal architect of Brooklyn College. BC’s campus was one of the many projects launched by the Public Works Administration (PWA) to jumpstart the nation’s economy at the height of the Great Depression; accordingly, the campus named one of the original five buildings at BC after FDR.
Certainly, the legacy of the New Deal is worth celebrating. And boy, do we celebrate it here in New York City. Here on campus, the Tow Center hosted an exhibit last year singing the praises of the Federal Arts Project (FAP – what an acronym!); one borough over, a freshman Congresswoman you may or may not have heard of has appropriated the term “New Deal” for her proposed radical overhaul of our environmental policy.
What’s odd about this is that this liberal veneration of Roosevelt comes from the same people who decry Trumpism, especially as it relates to immigration policy. But Trump’s cruelty towards immigrants is really just a natural extension of FDR-era policies. And no, I’m not just talking about internment – although, it does bear repeating that 120,000 totally innocent West Coasters of Japanese descent were rounded up and placed into literal concentration camps at FDR’s behest.
No, I’m referring to the travesty of 20th century American history you didn’t read about in high school history: the Mexican Repatriation of the 1930s. This truly despicable policy, started under Herbert Hoover in the months following the stock market crash of 1929, encouraged people of Mexican descent to voluntarily move from the U.S. to Mexico. Alarmingly, this departure wasn’t voluntary so much as it was “volunteered”; even more alarmingly, most of the people deported this way were American citizens who “looked” Mexican, who were targeted to make jobs for “real” (read: white) Americans.
The bulk of these “repatriations” happened under Hoover’s watch, but when FDR took office in 1933, he did nothing to stop the local governments who were targeting Mexican-Americans. It’s one of many stains on Roosevelt’s legacy when it comes to immigration and race relations – alongside internment and his apathy towards the tide of Jewish immigrants freeing Nazi Germany.
Some will object to my disparaging Roosevelt along these lines – after all, he appointed Jews and African-Americans to several key positions, and wasn’t overtly racist like his predecessor (or some other presidents we could name). But every president is similarly complicated. We can choose to remember Dwight Eisenhower as the man who viewed desegregation as a moral crusade so important it warranted military force, or as the bigot who deported over a million Mexican immigrants (legal or otherwise) in the alarmingly named “Operation Wetback.” We can choose to remember Barack Obama as the man whose very election broke the color barrier to the presidency, or as the bigot who deported over a million Mexican immigrants (I’m beginning to notice a trend here) and garnered the nickname “deporter-in-chief” from Latino activists. Even Abraham Lincoln’s goodness is up for debate, as some historians argue that his personal beliefs weren’t quite in line with his soaring abolitionist rhetoric.
The truth is, it doesn’t quite matter which view of the presidents is “right.” What deserves celebration isn’t the men themselves (and yes, sadly, they’re all men – sorry, Pantsuit Nation) – what matters is the values they stood for. Consider Thomas Jefferson: most Americans hold dear the ideas espoused in the Declaration of Independence, for instance, even as we acknowledge that its primary author was a slaveholder and a rapist. We’ll still care about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as we venture further into the 21st century – even if we do (and ultimately should) erase the man who wrote those words down from our cultural memory.
For years now, I’ve heard rumors of the impending demolition of Roosevelt Hall. I’m not sure it’ll ever happen within our lifetime. But when it does, I hope the name Roosevelt dies with it. Perhaps they’ll come up with some new namesake, some new liberal icon with closer ties to BC – Chisholm Hall? Sanders Hall? Calzadilla-Palacio Hall? (That last one may strain credulity.) More likely than not it’ll go the way of the Koppelman School and be named for some millionaire alum. But the best namesake would be no namesake at all; for our institutions to celebrate not the famous men that once walked their halls, but the virtues they claim to represent.