The federal government has approved changing the name of “Coon Lake” in north-central Washington’s Stehekin Valley to “Howard Lake.”
Nearly eight years after being petitioned, the federal government has approved changing the name of Coon Lake in north-central Washington’s Stehekin Valley to Howard Lake.
On Thursday, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, the final arbiter of place names, met in Washington, D.C., and unanimously adopted the Howard name. The new name honors Wilson Howard, a black miner who staked claims at the lake in the 1890s.
As the original Howard Lake petitioner, I’m gratified. But while the action erases the racial epithet from topographical maps and trail signs, it doesn’t erase the attitudes that produced and sustained the name “coon” for the last 100-plus years.
Nor does it erase the absurdity that Howard Lake advocates had to endure eight years of bureaucratic inertia before prevailing. More than 200 people signed petitions, wrote letters, testified and lobbied for Howard Lake. More than 50 Washington state legislators from both major parties signed a letter demanding change. Congressional members from both major parties insisted on action. There was national media attention. All that for a simple name change.
I pursued this effort because names matter — they tell stories, impart lessons. So removing a racist name is a good thing. But let’s not conflate ending racist symbols — place names, flags — with the arduous task of rooting out deep and abiding institutional racism in our society today.
Earlier this year, King County advanced plans to build a new, $210 million youth jail. The upbeat designation, “Children and Family Justice Center,” doesn’t mask the reality that my daughters’ brown-skinned classmates have a fivefold greater chance of ending up behind those jail doors than do my own light-skinned daughters.
This summer we saw a presidential candidate vault to the top of the pack after he launched ignorance-driven attacks on Mexican immigrants in the country without proper documents. He pledged to deport 11 million. Some who support him beat a Latino in Boston, spat on immigrants in Washington, D.C., and shouted “white power!” at a rally in Alabama.
Driving home in Seattle’s Rainier Valley last week, I slowed to goggle the police lights and a car that had been pulled over. The driver was a black man. My children looked on. They’d seen this scene many times already in their young lives. I wondered: What conclusions are forming in their minds?
An investigation by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, found that young black men in our country are 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be shot dead by police.
These are just a few of the harsh reminders of how far we have yet to go before meeting our nation’s loftiest aspiration for equal rights under the law.
I’m glad today that we can celebrate the Howard Lake name. It represents an ever-so-slight bending of the arc of the moral universe toward justice. But beyond the symbolism of the name change, I hope it helps, even in a minuscule way, to pry open the more difficult and urgent conversations about race and bias in our everyday lives.