Political Correctness

Brown University Renames Columbus Day "Indigenous People's Day"

When will people stop taking the Ivy League so super-cereal?


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Rhode Island's Brown University has long been recognized as a punchline for virtually any and every joke about political correctness (its reputation as a safety school for the dimmer lights of the Kennedy clan also doesn't help people take it more seriously).

Now the school has officially renamed Columbus Day as "Indigenous People's Day." The school stopped using the term Columbus Day back in 2009. Yesterday, the faculty voted for the new name, citing the following reasons:

Prior to the vote, faculty discussed the following goals presented by NAB [Native Americans at Brown] when advocating for the change:

to express the need for opportunities to increase visibility of Native Americans and recognition of Native Americans at Brown; to celebrate the contributions of indigenous communities and cultures; and to acknowledge a legacy of displacement and oppression of Native American peoples.

Full account here (hat tip: Insider Higher Ed).

As a private university, Brown is of course welcome to do whatever it wants for the most part and the faculty's stated goals are all swell by me. Just 0.4 percent of the undergrad student body (and just 0.1 percent of the grad student body) identify as "American Indian of Alaska Native." But there's an irony here, too, that goes beyond simple political correctness, as the elite (read: expensive) educational institution is brushing aside one commemoration of ethinc aggrievement for another.

Columbus Day is far less a celebration of the New World's objectively racist and morally awful "discoverer" than it is a celebration of Italian Americans (the Genoese explorer Christopher Columbus sailed for Spain, arguably the most brutal of the European colonial powers in the Americas). Although the first celebration took place in 1792, it only became a national holiday (and one fully attached to Italian Americans) in 1937, after intense lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization highly identified with Italians. In other words, Columbus Day is an ethnic-heritage celebration every bit as fake—and purely American—as St. Patrick's Day or Cinco de Mayo.

While Italian Americans have faced nothing like the systematic discrimination that Native Americans have, it's not as if they've been in the driver's seat for much of American history, especially when the nation's worst crimes were being waged against Indians. For instance, Italians were singled out not only as a reason for New York City's early 20th century gun-control laws (they come from the land of the vendetta, don't you know, and are really emotional!) and were targeted by explicitly racist immigration laws passed in the 1920s (Africa begins at Rome and all that, amirite?).

So while Brown's overwhelmingly wealthy students and faculty congratulate themselves for pushing aside one relatively powerless ethnic group in the name of an even more powerless group, they might at least give a nod to the idea that pitting groups against one another like this is exactly how the really powerful keep their own power from being challenged.

Take it away, Sopranos: