Open Letter in Support of the Reconciliation in Place Names Act

We, the undersigned Earth scientists, geoscientists, and environmental scientists, express our enthusiastic support for H.R. 8455 (116th): Reconciliation in Place Names Act1, written and introduced by Rep.s Deb Haaland and Al Green to address the names of land and geographical features that are racist and have roots in racism and colonialism.

The legacy of racism and colonialism in the United States shows itself in the people and ideas we have chosen to honor through monuments and the names we assign to buildings and natural features. In recent years, there has been a rising movement to dismantle our culture’s honor for racist figures and the atrocities they committed by changing the names of buildings and monuments that are named after them. In this letter, we hope to draw attention to another under-appreciated form of harm through naming, in which the names of land and geographic features contain offensive language and racial slurs. A 2015 survey2 suggests that over 1,100 United States land features have racist names. We strongly reject the argument that these names (many of which include slurs) should be preserved in the name of ‘history’.

These names perpetuate the notion that land does not belong to and is not for people of color and inherently suggests that racist and offensive language is acceptable in public, scientific, and governmental settings. These governmentally-run public lands are in fact stolen from Indigenous peoples and the racist names often denigrate Indigenous peoples and cultures. Further, this is problematic for us as Earth scientists, as many of us make land and topographic features our life’s work.

The Earth sciences, geosciences, and environmental sciences have been attempting to make progress in diversifying the scientific body and improving the inclusivity of science for BIPOC scientists (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color). Maintaining place names that are racist and offensive actively prevents the very diversity we are striving for. It prevents BIPOC scientists from being able to freely participate in the geologic and geophysical sciences as white scientists do.

As scientists, we call for immediate renaming of these features and commit to ensuring that BIPOC (particularly Black and Indigenous) geoscientists have the freedom to work as safely as non-Black and non-Indigenous geoscientists do. Otherwise, we will only perpetuate a scientific community culture that is hostile to its Black and Indigenous members and tolerant of racism and injustice. We cannot, in good conscience, continue to do research on and publish papers about formations and land features that have names steeped in racism and racist history.

Our society has seen a shift in the last few years, as a groundswell has clamored for us to move beyond simply not being racist to being actively anti-racist. Renaming land and geographic features whose names contain offensive language and slurs offers a clear example of the distinction between non-racism and anti-racism: allowing these names to remain is being a passive bystander, while calling for change is an anti-racist action. To ensure equity and justice in our scientific spaces, we support Rep.s Haaland’s and Green’s bill and call for the redaction of offensive language and slurs from published scientific papers mentioning these features.

The act of changing names of landscape features has precedent; the Department of Interior and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) have removed racist names for land and geographic features in the past, though many unfortunately still remain. Further, according to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names (BGN), “derogatory and offensive names” are not approved for official use. However, both local and federal boards have been slow and hesitant to change these insulting names, and even guidelines by the BGN are not stringent enough to ensure the changing of racist names.

We, the undersigned, support the bill H.R. 8455 (116th): Reconciliation in Place Names Act and encourage our colleagues to continue to push Congress and our state governments to make these critical, needed changes as soon as possible.

1Reconciliation in Place Names Act, H.R 8455, 116th Cong. (2020).

2Vocativ Survey, 2015, Racial Slurs Are Woven Deep Into The American Landscape