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James Phelan’s complex history

July 13, 2017
Michael Burke
San Marcos

Re “USF renames residence hall for football hero Burl A. Toler,” May 25:

I don’t have a dog in this fight, one might say. My only relationship to the University of San Francisco is that I graduated from another college in the Bay Area. So what could be my point? I think Father Fitzgerald made a great point that most of our culture would do well to replicate today – that James Phelan’s complex history does deserve some recognition in some way, if not in the naming of a residence hall, then in some other way that helps us understand the historical imperatives of past ages. Why throw out the baby with the bath water? By vilifying him wholesale would imply that all critical decisions be made only as a response to the “bad” that has occurred and never the good that many have done and still do, imperfect creatures that they are.

Two things stand out: First, Phelan was a Democrat who was an anti-immigrant advocate specifically against the Japanese who were seeking arable land and opportunity that they would never get in Japan; and, second, history teaches us that things change – what was considered appropriate political strategy over 100 years ago may not be so now, though still used. And remember that later in Phelan’s political career, this anti-immigration rhetoric went against him. Perhaps many people realized that he was painting all immigrants with the “Yellow Peril” label and that the ones they had met, including the Japanese, were merely seeking what all who came to these shores wanted for themselves, their families, and their legacy. This direction, if Father Fitzgerald has God’s way and the students actually find the mercy to respond to it, is a simple, but consistent, example of the truth of American distinctiveness. Remember that Phelan, too, was the child of an immigrant who probably faced the humiliating signs in windows that spelled N.I.N.A. (No Irish Need Apply).


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