Removing slurs, bigotry from places on our maps paves the way to remove them from all aspects of our lives
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Right now we are living in an unparalleled moment. We are witnessing a pandemic that exposed the undeniable inequalities that exist in our country and shed light on the inescapable legacy of racism that endures within all aspects of our society. We are presented with the haunting reality of what it is like to be a person of color in the United States and with that comes the responsibility to instill lasting change.

This summer, House Democrats answered to the horrific killing of George Floyd with a bold demand for police reform in the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We called on our communities and institutions to do better. We worked with the Department of Defense to rename military bases and remove names that honor Confederate generals and soldiers. We even pushed an NFL team to change its racist name.

These calls to action were a small step toward achieving the progress our country needs. The reality is that with each policy reformed, there are thousands more that need to be addressed.

While some argue that keeping historic, yet harmful, names remind us of our history, it’s important to place those names in context. As the daughter of an active duty combat veteran, I grew up hiking, camping and visiting sites across the country. Unfortunately, many of these beautiful places are tainted with names that are derogatory towards Native American women, often including the word “squaw.” This word may mean nothing to you, but to me, a Native American woman, it is a slur.

Others were named to honor slave owners, defenders of Jim Crow laws, and people who promoted racism against the Asian American and Latinx communities. As a son of the segregated South, I have encountered the horrors of racism in what some may consider the slightest of ways — visiting heralded national landmarks named for known bigots.

By continuing to honor the legacies of racists, sexists, homophobes, transphobes, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, and xenophobes, we send the message that their contributions outweigh the harm their stances have caused. It says that bigotry is somehow inextricably woven into the fabric of America. Even as a member of Congress, I have navigated the halls of a building named for a former Sen. Richard B. Russell who campaigned on the promise to preserve and insure White supremacy.

Unfortunately, our experiences are far from singular. As of 2015, 1,441 federally recognized places were identified as having offensive names, and most have not been changed. Of those 1,441 place names, 500 use derogatory terms that reference Black Americans. Often these place names use the term “negro” which in many cases was updated in the 1960s from harsher language that society no longer deemed appropriate. This wasn’t the only time that societal progression brought updates to names. Prior to the 1970s, there were over 200 place names using “Jap” which was then changed to “Japanese.” There are 828 place names across the United States that use slurs to identify forests, streams, and wilderness areas that exist in every state. These public spaces are for all Americans, yet the bigoted names hardly make all visitors feel welcome.

The problem is that we have advanced far beyond the changes made in the 1960s and 1970s. Our country claims to recognize the slurs in place names as antiquated and bigoted, yet they remain unchanged. In this moment of reckoning, we cannot allow the United States Board on Geographic Names to remain in the past preserving offensive place names.

While Board policies authorize changing the names of offensive geographic features, the current process is reactive and time-consuming and lacks transparency and public input. We have seen that the Board is ill-equipped to address the root of the problem. In most cases, renaming only occurs after public outcry and widespread national support gain traction, and even then, the process is drawn out and complicated.

It’s time that we change that. So, we introduced the Reconciliation in Place Names Act. This legislation will create the Advisory Committee on Reconciliation in Place Names to make recommendations to the Board on Geographic Names to rename geographic features and federal land units that currently bear offensive names. The committee would work with tribes, racial justice advocates, state governments, and members of the public to ensure place names are inclusive to all members of our communities.

It may seem like a small step towards a greater goal, but it is an opportunity to erase daily reminders of the inequality our ancestors faced. Racism is woven into our society and it’s our responsibility to untangle it, not just from law but in subtleties like the name of a mountain, river, or creek. If we remove slurs and bigotry from places on our maps, we pave the way to take larger steps to remove them from all aspects of our lives.

Deb Haaland represents the 1st District of New Mexico and Al GreenAlexander (Al) N. GreenLawmakers roll out legislation to defend pipelines against cyber threats Bipartisan lawmakers call for action on anti-hate crime measures House Democrat sits on Capitol steps to protest extremist threat MORE represents the 9th District of Texas.