An open letter from Shwaw Vang on Vang Pao Elementary School
Shwaw Vang, a three-term member of the Madison Board of Education who retired this spring, helped lead the campaign to name a new elementary school in the far west side Linden Park neighborhood after General Vang Pao, a leader and iconic figure in the Hmong community. This decision swiftly drew criticism, though, as UW history professor Alfred McCoy voiced allegations of Pao's involvement in war crimes and drug trafficking during the Vietnam War led to a petition campaign to rename the school.
Only three days after the groundbreaking ceremony at the new school on June 1, Vang Pao and eight other men were arrested and charged in California with planning a military coup of the Commuist government of Laos. Calls to rename the school were immediately renewed, and the school board quickly decided to revisit the naming in a meeting on Monday, June 18.
Vang's open letter follows:
The Board of Education will discuss reconsidering its decision to name the new elementary school after General Vang Pao because Vang Pao has been charged with a plot to overthrow a foreign country. Since the fall of the Laos monarchy and democracy in 1975, the government of Laos, one of the most oppressive communist regimes in the world, killed the King of Laos and has murdered and continues to murder thousands of Hmong people and use chemical weapons on them.
Yet the United States government and the United Nations have ignored these murders of former American allies 32 years. While not condoning the charges as stated in the indictment, I want this community to know and to understand the horrors those thousands of Hmong people trapped in Laos face even while we debate this name issue. Hmong Americans cannot leave those who were left behind in Laos to be hunted, murdered, and killed by chemical warfare.
Although Vang Pao has not been convicted, those who opposed the Vang Pao name because of dubious allegations claim they have been vindicated. But the indictment has nothing to do with their original objections. However, now that the Board has been convinced that it needs to reconsider the name, I believe this is a good time to invite the broader community to also consider other MMSD schools named after people who have tainted history.
Some MMSD schools bear the names of people who would not meet the same standards touted by those who have so harshly judged General Vang Pao. The facts are well known by those have openly judge Vang Pao. But so far, nothing has been said about these people, who are clearly heroes to some of us in Madison. I invite the community, media, and editorial writers to discuss and apply the same standards to these people with schools named after them. Should we also ask the Board to reconsider these names? If not, then how can we justify applying double standards to different people?
One school bears the name of an enslaver of Americans of African ancestry. In the Declaration of Independence he described Native Americans, who were exercising their own rights as defined in the opening words of that Declaration in fighting their oppressor, as "merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions." Is such a man worthy of having a school named after him?
One MMSD school is named after a revered labor leader who hypocritically denied the rights he championed to Asian-immigrants. Law Professor, Frank H. Wu, wrote in his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White:
[Labor organizer Samuel Gompers], president of the AFL-CIO, co-wrote a pamphlet in 1901 about "Meat versus Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism -- Which Shall Survive," arguing "while there is hardly a single reason for the admission of Asiatics, there are hundreds of good and strong reasons for their absolute exclusion." On other occasions, he warned of "the menace of a possible overwhelming of our people by hordes of Asiatics." He explained that "the Caucasians ... are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any others." Despite the AFL having pledged to unite working people "irrespective of creed, color, sex, nationality, or politics," [Gompers forbade locals from accepting Chinese or Japanese members.]
Is this person worthy of having a school named after him?
It is only fair and equitable that the public in any debate about reconsideration of school names apply the same public and moral standards to everyone with a dark history. People who are heroes to some might be totally different to others. There is an opportunity for a wider discussion here.
Former Board of Education member
Actually, I am prepared to differentiate Thomas Jefferson, whatever his imperfections, from Vang Pao, so far as naming an American school goes. If this is your strongest argument, we part company. Sorry.