OPINION: USC must grapple with its past of racism and discrimination

In his address to the Newcomen Society on April 7, 2005, former USC president Steven Sample proudly declared, “Our code of ethics is an outgrowth of our self-perception as a University founded on diversity, mutual respect and academic freedom.”

But this image of a University that has always been committed to noble values of inclusion is fabricated. In past years, there has been a movement on campus to rename the Von KleinSmid Center after its namesake, Rufus Von KleinSmid, was exposed as an outspoken eugenicist. Unfortunately, VKC is not the only part of campus that has been touched by a history of exclusion and racism.

Sample bases his argument for the University’s foundational commitment to diversity on the fact that the University’s three founders were a Protestant, a Catholic and a Jew. While that might sound like the setup to a “three guys walk into a bar” joke, the founders would have been considered a diverse group back when Los Angeles was predominantly white, once even branded as “The Great White Spot of America.” While the founders’ idea of diversity may have extended to white men and white women of different religions, their commitment faltered when considering people of different races.

Joseph Widney, whose name is attached to the Widney Alumni House, held extreme views on race — even for his era — and he wasn’t shy about sharing them. In his 1935 book, “The Three Americas: Their Racial Past and Dominant Racial Factors for Their Future,” Widney argues that the Americas, specifically California, were destined for “the Aryan race.” He writes that the arrival of Columbus was “the doom of [the] native peoples.” Widney doesn’t stop there. He argues that Native Americans living in California “could not resist: they could not absorb: they could only die.” He attributes this predetermined fate to some kind of natural “law” that human beings could do nothing to alter or stop. These do not sound like the academic theories and beliefs of a man who would instill a commitment to diversity in the University that his brother founded. Widney’s writings do not equate to Von KleinSmid’s horrific actions. Instead of erasing Widney’s name from campus history, the University should present a more complete and accurate portrayal and stop glorifying him as an infallible figure in the University’s past.

Twenty-seven years after USC’s founding, the University awarded its first degree to an African American student, John Alexander Somerville, who graduated with honors from the school of dentistry in 1907. On the surface, this may seem like a notable accomplishment, since this milestone occurred during a time when most of the country was actively suppressing opportunities for black Americans. However, Somerville’s autobiography, “Man of Color,” reveals a classroom environment that was openly hostile to the presence of a black man. He writes that there “was quite a commotion when they saw a colored face.” Somerville details how the students in his class threatened to drop out if the school administrators did not remove him from the University. While the dean of the dentistry school defended Sommerville’s right to attend, the students’ actions exposed the truth about a student body that was not ready to embrace students of color as equals. This shameful episode indicates a greater University culture of exclusion that ran so deep that students were willing to sacrifice their education in order to uphold their prejudices.

Considering these red marks on USC’s past, the idea that the University has been committed to diversity since day one sounds like a highly idealized version of our past. In his speech, Sample took a revisionist approach to USC’s history, choosing to ignore the ugly parts and instead glorifying the University’s so-called code of ethics. Sample centered his speech on what he refers to as “myths” surrounding USC, and he is careful to note that “many myths are absolutely true.”

This commitment to these “true myths” glosses over the struggles that successive waves of students of color have faced as they integrated the school over several generations. The University should not continue to sweep the problematic past of figures like Von KleinSmid and Widney along with the experiences of students like Sommerville under the rug. It should educate its students about both its failures and its successes.

USC has come a long way since the presence of one black student drove an entire class to threaten resignation. The University can demonstrate some pride in that progress. But that pride and an acknowledgement of the shameful words and actions of former faculty and students are not mutually exclusive. Hopefully future presidents will learn from their predecessors’ mistakes and not continue to present the University as simply a shining school on a pedestal. Beneath that shine are transgressions that deserve to be exposed, understood and overcome.