UT should make racial geography tour mandatory part of orientation

Neelesh Rathi

“A world which turns out to be one in which those we honor are unworthy … is nerve-(w)racking.”

In his 1922 work “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann described why people hold onto stereotypes, both flattering and demeaning. Stereotypes are, regardless of their accuracy, the basis for people’s worldview. Changing them takes effort and courage.

As a school, UT has a crucial responsibility to educate and to challenge inaccuracies — starting with its own murky stance on race. The campus houses numerous structures and artifacts that lionize racists such as Beauford H. Jester, George W. Littlefield, Robert Lee Moore, James Stephen Hogg, Theophilus Painter and others. The longer the University takes to address these false, one-dimensional and stereotypical  depictions, the more students will leave the University unprepared for the racial complexities and subtleties of the world.

Stripping these historical figures of context and representing them in one-dimensionally celebratory ways — statues, a fountain, namesakes of buildings — is blatant historical amnesia. 

“There is a difference between celebration and pedagogy,” said Edmund T. Gordon, Vice Provost for Diversity and former chair African and African Diaspora Studies department. 

Gordon believes that the artifacts glorifying Confederates and other racists should be “contextualized” where they stand. 

“(UT must explain) why they were put up, what they symbolize … and how the University position now is different, if it is, from the intentions of the folks who put them up,” Gordon said. 

Instead of removing these structures, they should be used to introduce incoming students to the University during orientation. The racial geography tour explains the campus’ racial and gender history, and its online format makes it easy to use and reuse. If incoming students are required to begin orientation with the tour, they can then consider its lessons while traveling around campus and encountering these artifacts.

These symbols of oppression can be left up, but if they are, UT must follow through on its stated mission, emblazoned at the base of the Tower — “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” The Hogg statue alone doesn’t help us remember the true legacy of James Hogg, contrary to the claims UT President Gregory Fenves made to justify its reerection on campus. To do that, it would need contextualization that accurately represents or explains its racist legacy.

According to Lippmann, “(Stereotypes) are the fortress of our tradition, and behind its defenses we can continue to feel ourselves safe in the position we occupy.” 

Tradition is comfortable, but only for those whose interests it serves. Holding onto tradition maintains the status quo, and unless the status quo is fair, maintaining it is not. On a campus where the student body is only 4% African American, that underrepresented group must encounter statues, a fountain, buildings and art that commemorate racists and segregationists.

Glorifying our worst traditions maintains the status quo — maintains stereotypes of “glorious” whites and “insignificant” blacks — because it perpetuates the misremembrance that has been weaponized for the last century to maintain white supremacy.

The racial geography tour is the crystallization of the knowledge, effort and courage it will take to end these racist traditions. But UT must fulfill its purpose — it must actively educate its students. 

We need to remember the truth, and since steel and brick — “the fortress of our tradition” — can outlast memory, we need to make sure we never forget it. With the racial geography tour, we can change the fortress so that instead of teaching tradition, it teaches truth.

Rathi is a Black Studies senior from Austin.