Four graduate students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have called for scientists to help support efforts to remove racism from the hundreds of federal place names across the country.
The effort started in January when Julia Wilcots, a geologist, came across an anti-Black slur in an older map she was using to plan out future fieldwork. Wilcots flagged the place name for her supervisor and fellow graduate students, who set out to redact mentions of the name and also see if the place had been renamed.
“As we started looking it up, we found a slew of other landmarks and geographical features with racial slurs, some whose names still incorporate the racial slur,” Meghana Ranganathan, a postgraduate student in glaciology, said in an email. “We were shocked, and being four women of color in the geosciences, disconcerted that these are names that our fellow geoscientists of color could come across as they do their work.”
The women hadn’t stumbled across an anomaly. A survey conducted in 2015 by Vocativ found that more than 1,400 federally-recognized place names used offensive terms or racial slurs. While the survey found offensive names in every state, the largest density of slurs was located in the West and South. The count includes more than 550 place names that use slurs for Black people (California alone is home to 51 of those places), 30 place names that reference racist terms for people of Chinese descent, and more than 820 places that contain a derogatory term for Indigenous women, the most common slur the survey found.
Shockingly, some of those 1,400 names are less offensive than they used to be. Many of those 550 names that reference Black Americans were updated in the 1960s to use “Negro” instead of the N-word. But the federal government notably kept place names that included the terms “Uncle Tom,” “pickaninny,” and “Jim Crow,” many of which remain untouched today. Nor did it change the four places named “Dead Negro.” Needless to say, these haphazard patches are kind of like putting a Band-aid on an amputated limb.
A handful of offensive place names have been successfully changed. In 2017, an offensively named canyon in Utah changed from “Negro Bill Canyon” to “Grandstaff Canyon” to reflect the last name of the Bill it was named after but not the color of his skin. But hundreds of racist place names still remain strewn across the U.S., bound by the same historic inertia that kept Confederate statues standing for decades (or, in some cases, built long after the South lost the Civil War).
There’s a way to submit an official request to the federal government to change a place name—but the process is lengthy, bogged down by hundreds of requests, and ill-fitted to address the wholesale presence of racism across the entire map. Fortunately, there’s a federal solution on the table. The Reconciliation in Place Names Act, or H.R. 8455, was introduced last fall by then-Rep. Deb Haaland and Rep. Al Green. The bill would task the Department of Interior with creating a special advisory committee to review offensive place names and solicit input from tribal members as well as members of the general public for alternatives. (Haaland is now the Secretary of the Department of the Interior.)
Upon learning about the legislation, Ranganathan, Wilcots, and their fellow graduate students Diana Dumit and Rohini Shivamoggi wrote an open letter for the scientific community to show support; as of press time, more than 500 scientists had signed on. Ranganathan said there are crucial reasons for scientists to support this legislation.
“We as geoscientists have a very unique relationship with the places we study,” she said. “Scientists often occupy positions of privilege within society, as we are viewed as people with expertise and knowledge and people to be listened to, and geoscientists, in particular, have some amount of expertise about these land features.”
What’s more, the issue reflects much larger problems in their field. A 2017 National Science Foundation survey found that the geosciences are the least diverse of all STEM fields, while a 2018 commentary published in Nature Geoscience found that PhDs awarded in the geosciences overwhelmingly went to white candidates. Representation from minority groups, the commentary’s authors wrote, has remained “essentially ... stagnant” over the past 40 years, despite increased outreach and attempts to diversify the field. Having a strategy in hand to deal with racist place names that may come up in fieldwork could be an important component to help scientists of color working in an environment where they’re already the minority.
“It is our duty as a geoscience community to ensure that geoscientists of color that we are recruiting and supporting have the same experiences as their white peers,” Ranganathan said. “While there are many issues facing geoscientists (and scientists) of color, this seems like one issue to seriously consider when we ask geoscientists of color to do fieldwork in areas that have racial slurs in place names.”
While there’s been no action on the bill since it was introduced last September, having Haaland at the helm of the Department of the Interior—the first-ever Indigenous cabinet secretary—could lead the agency to move even absent the legislation passing. Even if Haaland’s bill is passed or the federal government takes up a similar initiative, Ranganathan said the scientific community still has a job to do and some deep wounds to address on their own.
“Even once these place names get changed, a lot of these racial slurs remain in the geoscience literature,” Ranganathan said. “The place name that [Wilcots] came across was a name that had been changed in the last few decades, but that slur still remains on a map that is used. The geoscience community needs to have a conversation about how to handle these slurs and old place names in geoscience literature, and we hope that galvanizing support amongst scientists will begin those conversations.”