There’s a few things that almost all public schoolchildren know. It was 1492 when Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue on the Niña, the Pinta and the Santa Maria. What they might not know is that Columbus’ actions propelled the genocide of millions of Native Americans — that his own writings reveal his motivations to seize gold and enslave those that he encountered. His subjugation led to the devastation and destruction of Native American communities that have now endured centuries of trauma. It ripped open one of the largest historical wounds in humanity. By any standard, it was deplorable.
So when the Los Angeles City Council changed Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day, it sent Angelenos an important message: We are better than our past, and we will strive to be better than our present.
It amazes many that, given Columbus’ history and Los Angeles’ progressivism, it took so long for the city to stop its endorsed celebration of a man who perpetuated so much violence.
Unfortunately, the move has been met by distaste by many who view it as yet another effort by the left to instill political correctness in everyday life. TheWall Street Journal Editorial Board said of the move, “If we honored only saints, few would make it onto pedestal.” Yes, indeed — but that is the point of those whose names have become national days of celebration. The presence of Christopher Columbus among the only two other federal holidays named after historical leaders, Martin Luther King Jr. and George Washington, is an insult to our modern values.
It is true that many of the most instrumental figures in our nation’s history committed acts that are despicable by today’s standards. Many of our founding fathers owned slaves, like Thomas Jefferson — and, as a Smithsonian Magazine piece points out, “embraced the worst forms of racism to justify slavery.” Former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, beloved and revered for his New Deal programs, also signed the executive order to send over 100,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps. Even Aristotle thought Asiatic barbarians were naturally slavish.
Yet, the recognition that some great leaders have also committed cardinal sins should not be a reason to keep the memorialization of these figures in place. It justifies the opposite. The renaming of Columbus Day is not an attempt to expunge the parts of history that run contrary to modern values. It is, instead, an attempt to correct the revisionist history that so often allows us to forget the darker side to our collective past. It recognizes that early American history is written by colonial winners, who have every reason to glorify their conquest and genocide — but that does not mean that we should continue the tradition. It ensures that future generations engage in thoughtful conversation about our national history and who we should choose to celebrate. Most importantly, it is a signal of respect toward Native Americans, for whom Columbus Day and Thanksgiving have only added emotional insult to centuries of injury.
The effects of the the City Council’s decision certainly comes with political consequences. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board posited, “We wonder if the council knows it has given President Trump a political gift.” And so it has — the president and political right will surely seize the name change as evidence of the leftist totalitarian regime of political correctness. But that is no reason to fail to stand up for what is right. Los Angeles is making a bold statement, even though it would not have been seen as so before Donald Trump’s presidency.
An insidious undercurrent ripples beneath the widespread conservative outrage at the renaming of Columbus Day — the notion that, just as removing Confederate general Robert E. Lee statutes will erase our national identity, so too will changing Columbus Day. But that claim entails the troubling assumption that our national identity is dictated to us by a genocidal conqueror.
Over 500 years later, with the tribulations of American history, I think we are better than that. I am proud that Los Angeles, in the face of the rise of racial hatred and white supremacy, has determined that it is better than that. This is what resistance looks like.
Sonali Seth is a senior majoring in policy, planning and development. She is also the special projects editor of the Daily Trojan. “Point/Counterpoint” runs Wednesdays.