The controversy in Madison surrounding the naming of a new school after Hmong leader General Vang Pao has been beaten to death locally, but it can provide some important lessons for the future for the rest of the state.
First of all, there really isn’t anyone in this whole charade to root for. Sure, the gutless Madison school board was unwilling to stand up to the Hmong community when they were pushing for a school to be named after a questionable (and living) general. However, some citizens opposed naming the school after Vang because he had been involved in (gasp!) a military conflict. One parent went so far as to say that if you named the school after a military leader, then you couldn’t teach children not to fight in school (As has been the case, apparently, with kids who attend schools named “Washington,” “Lincoln,” “Kennedy,” etc.)
The facts are well known: Madison is building a new elementary school on the far west side. When soliciting names for the school, the school district received 41 suggestions, ranging from Supreme Court Justice Shirley Abrahamson to Gaylord Nelson to Ronald Reagan. Amid much lobbying from the Hmong community in Madison, including Hmong board member Shwaw Vang, the Madison School Board unanimously approved naming the school after General Vang Pao, who led Hmong soldiers in defense of the United States in the Vietnam War.
There’s a problem, however. Vang Pao had been accused of some questionable activities in his past, including allegations of drug running. And since he is still living, it opened up the door for him to do something else to embarrass the school district – which is exactly what happened, when he was arrested in California on charges of building a militia to violently overthrow the government of Laos.
The lesson here is clear: Don’t name buildings after living people. They screw up. Sometimes spectacularly.
There are ways of getting around this that may be acceptable. In recent years, the state opened the Risser Justice Building in Madison. In that case, the building is named after the Risser Family, who have had a father and son both serve in the Legislature. (Fred Risser was first elected in 1956, and still serves in the Senate. There’s a decent chance that the 26th Senate District will be represented by Fred Risser’s cryogenically frozen brain for the next 200 years).
By naming it after a family, you can deflect the actions of a bad actor – such as if Fred Risser were caught in bed with a giraffe (which, incidentally, would only be slightly less embarrassing than Tommy Thompson’s presidential campaign – and Thompson has had state buildings named after him).
It takes a person’s death for us to properly put them in the context of our history. That should be the standard by which we hand out building names.
Furthermore, for new schools, it makes sense to name them after the neighborhood in which they are built. That way, something as simple as naming a school doesn’t turn into the “racial grievance Olympics” every time one is built. If the school board is compelled to honor a minority when naming a school, there are some civil rights titans that remain underappreciated (Thurgood Marshall, for instance).
The Madison School Board has made the right decision to rename the west side school. Let’s hope they get it right this time.