The late journalist, Robert C. Maynard once wrote that as a nation we are divided along the fault lines of race, class, gender, geography and generation. To provide a more nuanced understanding of the racial divide, Maynard believed that journalists are compelled not only to acknowledge their existence but also discern their consequences.
Never was that observation more prescient than in the hotly-contested Republican presidential race. Texas Governor Rick Perry, who is seeking the GOP nomination, ignited a political furor earlier this month when it was reported that he once entertained guests at a West Texas hunting camp known as Niggerhead pasture.
The racial controversy over Perry’s southern roots is nothing new. Debates over offensive race-based place names have roiled the states throughout the country’s history. A recent New York Times story reports that the United States Board on Geographic Names lists 757 names that use the word Negro, or a variation.
Offensive race-based names dot our landscape: Niggerhead Point, New York (now Graves Point); Dago Gulch, Montana; and Niggerhead Mountain, Vermont. It was only in 1963 when the federal government issued a blanket order to change “Jap” to “Japanese” in all geographic names.
Sadly, Asian-Americans have not been immune to race-based names. Civil rights organizations, including the Japanese American Citizens League and Anti-Defamation League, have waged numerous battles against anti-Asian race-based place names.
Chinese Spring is located in Upper Geyser Basin, the same geyser basin that is home to Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. It was only fifteen years ago that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names ended a long-simmering controversy by changing its previous name: Chinaman Spring.
A similar controversy erupted in the Pacific Northwest in 1997 when Japanese-Americans campaigned to change the name of a mountain, Chink’s Peak, located in the Pocatello Range in Idaho. According to legend, the citizens of Pocatello had named the peak to honor a Chinese-American laborer who perished in the mountains of Idaho.
A four-year battle to change the name to Chinese Peak was won in 2001, but only after a contentious battle between local governments, ethnic communities, and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. Micki Kawakami, a Japanese-American in Pocatello, launched the campaign with the support of the JACL and prominent Chinese Americans in the town.
The city of Pocatello and county agreed with Kawakami. The U.S. Board of Geographic Names eventually ruled that Chink’s Peak be taken off the map, and Chinese Peak became the new name for the 6,791-foot mountain.
In 2004, Japanese-Americans in Beaumont, Texas fought to change the name of a four-mile stretch of country road called Jap Road. Sandra Nakata Tanamachi, an elementary school teacher whose family settled in Beaumont after immigrating from Japan in the early 1990’s, had lobbied unsuccessfully for years to change the name of the road.
Then in 2004, Tanamachi joined forces with Thomas Kuwahara, a helicopter pilot from Lafayette, La., and filed a complaint with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Housing and Urban Development to try to keep Jefferson County from receiving federal money unless the name Jap Road was changed.
The Japanese American Citizens League, Anti-Defamation League, League of United Latin American Citizens, and Japanese American Veterans Association became embroiled in the controversy. The Association, some of whose members served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in World War II, spoke out against the offensive name.
U.S. Army veteran Kelly Kuwayama, then 86 years-old and a member of the 442nd, traveled from Washington to Beaumont to denounce the name of the road. “Jap Road should not be part of the United States landscape. And Texas is certainly part of the United States, or at least it was the last time I checked.”
As Gov. Perry has stepped onto the national stage with a now faltering presidential bid, his latest controversy exposes yet another sad chapter in our nation’s past. Given the race and class divide that Robert C. Maynard acknowledged, that debate should not surprise us. Rather it serves as a reminder that achieving civil rights is a never-ending struggle to expose those fault lines.