Jul 18, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Warren targets racist place names

The East Chinaman Spring is seen bubbling.

The East Chinaman Spring in Yellowstone National Park. Photo: Jon G. Fuller/VW PICS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A new congressional bill seeks to create a board to help rename more than 1,000 towns, lakes, streams, creeks and mountain peaks across the U.S. still named with racist slurs.

Why it matters: About 621 places have the word "negro" in them. New Mexico is home to a reservoir called Wetback Tank. The U.S. Board on Geographic Names oversees all naming decisions, but critics contend it's overwhelmed and slow to rename places despite public pressure.

Driving the news: The Reconciliation in Place Names Act, introduced Friday by Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), would create an advisory board made of civil rights advocates and tribal members.

  • The board would accept proposals from tribal nations, state and local governments and the public on suggested name changes.
  • The advisory board would then make recommendations to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the agency running the process for name changes.
  • Critics contend it isn't transparent. A government link exists where people can suggest name changes yet gives scant details on the names' status.

By the numbers: The database maintained by the U.S. Board on Geographic Names shows there are 799 sites containing the word "squaw" — a derogatory term for Native American women.

  • The places using "negro" include Big Negro Creek in Warren County, Illinois — and Negro Foot, Virginia, an unincorporated community said to have been named in reference to an enslaved person whose foot was amputated to prevent escape.
  • Twenty-nine places contain the word "Chinaman" — an offensive term describing Chinese American men. They include Chinaman Hat in Wasco County, Oregon, and Chinamans Canyon in Las Animas County, Colorado.
  • In addition to Wetbank Tank reservoir in New Mexico's Sierra County, there are 12 places around the country with the term "greaser." Both are epithets used to describe Mexican Americans.

What they're saying: “We need to immediately stop honoring the ugly legacy of racism and bigotry, and that’s why I’m introducing the Reconciliation in Place Names Act with my colleagues,” Warren said in a statement.

  • “This is about ending egregious expressions of systemic racism and bigotry and taking a step toward dismantling white supremacy in our economy and society. It’s about building an America that lives up to its highest ideals.”

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to state that Big Negro Creek is located in Warren County, Illinois.

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