Cosmetic change won’t heal racial wounds

This diagram of the Liverpool slave ship Brookes is dated 1789, made available by the Museum of London Docklands on Wednesday Feb. 27, 2013 . (AP Photo/Museum of London Docklands)

“The term house master is and will remain a part of the college’s long and proud history,” wrote Michael D. Smith, Harvard University’s dean of arts and sciences, in explaining Wednesday why the proud term was being abolished. Harvard’s houses will henceforth be led by “faculty deans,” a deliciously absurd coinage that I suppose will soon be coming to dormitories at other old colleges.

To be fair, Harvard announced late last year that it was searching for alternatives to “master.” Evidently the alumni fought a rearguard action hoping to have the term retained. I imagine that the alumni at Yale University, where I teach, are fighting the same action as they await the university’s decision.

The term “master” has been under fire because it is said to have connotations of the era of slavery.

One can understand this objection without agreeing that it’s time to throw the word overboard. It seems to me to be eminently sensible to purge from our everyday vocabulary actual terms of derogation of various groups, a point that everyone except my beloved Washington professional football team seems to accept. The same is true for symbols of oppression, which is why most of us cheered when the Confederate flags came down.

It’s something else again to start tossing words overboard because of their potential connotations. “Master” is an enormously useful word, whose history, as Smith concedes, has nothing to do with slavery. Under maritime law, vessels have masters. Chess masters aspire to become grandmasters. And if bond traders collectively are no longer quite the “masters of the universe” they once were, the phrase isn’t about to go away.

This is not to say that I am unsympathetic to students who feel wounded. Slavery is the original sin in which the United States was birthed, and the nation is a very long way from overcoming either its lingering effects or the mythology that undergirded it. Human beings were chattel. Those who were enslaved were most certainly owned by people called their masters. So I understand the argument against the word. What I don’t understand is why the same logic does not apply to the word “owner.”


As a matter of law, the enslaved were owned. Ownership was the very definition of slavery. And as any student of the history will attest, the term “owner” was used at least as often as the term “master” to refer to the individual in whom property rights were vested.

Perhaps more often.

I tested this hypothesis with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows searches for text strings in the millions of books the company has digitized. I limited the search to the years 1800 to 1865, the end of the Civil War. Of course we couldn’t get any useful information by directly comparing “master” and “owner,” because we would pick up many other uses of both words. But we can directly compare “slave master” and “slave owner.” At almost every point, “slave owner” is a more common usage than “slave master.” Around 1800, the gap between the two was small. By 1835, “slave owner” was used more than seven times as often as “slave master.” In 1865, the ratio was 3-to-1. Only during a very brief period around 1806 and 1807 did “slave master” occur more frequently.

This isn’t proof of the hypothesis, but it is evidence. At the very least, there’s enough here to suggest that anyone who thinks “master” was more associated with slavery than “owner” should adduce some evidence for the proposition.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think Harvard has made some horrible mistake, or that colleges that follow suit will somehow have turned their backs on a noble tradition that must be preserved if the academy is to remain a citadel of knowledge.

But I worry about our growing tendency to meet protest by leaping for the nearest cosmetic change, rather than asking more fundamental questions whose answers might prove more costly. These quick and easy acts of verbal substitution allow us to pat ourselves on the back without actually making progress.

As for me, I’ll continue to appreciate the repeated wordplay over the word “master” in “All’s Well That Ends Well,” and I will expect my students to master the law of evidence and contracts. And I’m sure I will get used to pronouncing “faculty dean.”

But I won’t be cheering for making a mangle of the language in the cause of cheap and easy racial justice — not until somebody explains me how discarding the term “house master” will save a single black life.

Stephen Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.