Monuments across the United States and around the world are being toppled during the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests, with tens of thousands participating in the destruction of these hideous symbols of white supremacy. While some universities have reckoned over the past decade with their complicity in slavery and systemic racism by destroying or adding positively to their visual symbology (Brown University, for example, placed a striking slavery memorial, commissioned by renowned Black artist Martin Puryear, centrally on its main campus in 2014), many have not. At our institution, the University of Southern California, there are statues and symbols across campus that reinforce a white supremacist ideology.

These cultural forms act as “Trojan horses,” sneaking offensive, even racist and sexist ideas into the fabric of the university where they lie in wait to do harm.

In our case, one has to begin, of course, with the hyper-masculine bronze statue of Tommy Trojan (erected in 1930) at the center of campus. This anachronistic helmeted and scantily clad phallic and Aryan figure, his arm thrusting his sword forth from his crotch area, is an unofficial school mascot. It stands across from a gleaming white horse representing USC’s official mascot, Traveler the horse, a gift from previous president Steven Sample. Students and faculty walk the gauntlet between these two monuments every day.

USC has a poor record when it comes to diversity and equity: the university featured prominently in the “Varsity Blues” scandal, in which the wealthy cheated and bribed their children’s way into top schools. It has also moved too slowly to address white supremacy. The new president, Carol Folt, has at last announced that the Von KleinSmid Center, named after the fifth president of USC, the notorious eugenicist and segregationist Rufus B. von KleinSmid, will be renamed, and the accompanying bust of KleinSmid removed. Weirdly, KleinSmid’s papers seem to have also gone missing —  founding director of the Shoah Foundation at USC Wolf Gruner hoped to teach a unit on the eugenicist’s ideas, but says he “ran into walls,” as if the university itself wishes to erase its ugly history.

Folt’s move is a huge step, but belated: students and faculty have for years clamored for the renaming of VKC, and their concerns were unheeded and the university dithered. In February of 2019, the provost followed Yale’s lead and formed the Provost’s Taskforce on USC Nomenclature, not necessarily to replace names and symbols, but to come up with a process and procedures for discussion and assessment. This is how bureaucracies feint, obfuscate, and delay the acknowledgment of the systemic racism so deeply embedded in this country and our institutions. Finally, in 2020, communities of color and youth agitators are taking the matter into their own hands and institutional and political leadership across the country (and world) is taking heed.

USC has been mired in scandals since 2017, and its failure to deal with white supremacy sits uneasily among them. They are all linked to a prioritizing of the USC “brand” over a sense of ethical purpose. Gross malfeasance by some deans, doctors, coaches, admissions officers, and faculty has been systematically swept under the carpet, and offenders have been paid off: faculty and students only hear about the scandals in the media. While USC is not alone in the shift of universities towards corporate funding models and an emphasis on branding, we have a unique range of overt visual symbology on campus that exposes the university’s links to dark ideologies, global nationalisms, and a culture of corruption that dogs many governments and campuses today. This culture, as Black Lives Matter activists and many critical race scholars (some at USC) have pointed out, is rooted in or supported by systems of white supremacy.

The white supremacist cultural symbols that map USC’s campus thus figure as visible symbols of this corruption. Statues, architecture, and language all support a USC brand that the upper administration and paid consultants seem to believe will “sell” the school. This branding exercise has eroded academic integrity and has compromised the commitments a major university should support: high level research, teaching, learning and the well-being of students, faculty, staff, and the surrounding community.

To return to Tommy Trojan and his horse: although Traveler became the mascot in 1961, when fan Nick Saukko donned a costume from Ben Hur and rode him in a Rose Bowl parade, the Traveler statue was installed quite recently, in 2010. As the Los Angeles Times and other papers have noted, whether or not Traveler was indeed named after Confederate Civil War general Robert E. Lee’s horse Traveller, the coincidence is more than unfortunate. USC students mounted a protest against the mascot in 2017 but were rebuffed. USC deflected and denied, remarking that “USC’s mascot horse is a symbol of ancient Troy. Its rider, with costume and sword is a symbol of a Trojan warrior.”

The glaringly shining and white Traveler monument is, however , a perfect example of what we mean by a Trojan horse: a means by which white supremacy and imperialism are snuck invisibly into USC.  

USC’s identification with the Trojans long predates the tenure of former president C. L. Max Nikias (forced to resign for his mishandling of a campus sexual abuse in 2018), but Nikias heavily promoted the connection between USC and a brand based on a classical (white) cultural heritage. With his Greek roots and love of classical scholarship, Nikias even launched his presidency with a speech titled “The Future Reign of Troy.” Nikias took his inspiration from the Aeneid, which Daniel Mendelsohn, in a 2018 New Yorker article, notes has been “arguably the single most influential work of European Civilization for the better better of two millenia.” The Aeneid tells the story of Aeneas, who from the ashes of devastated Troy built a new civilization, which became the Roman Empire. To say that Nikias, for all his vaunted love of the classics, was far behind the times in lauding Aeneas’s (mythic) achievement would be an understatement. As Mendelsohn goes on to note:

If readers of an earlier era saw the Aeneid as an inspiring advertisement for the onward march of Rome’s many descendants, from the Holy Roman Empire to the British one, scholars now see in it a tale of nationalistic arrogance whose plot is an all too familiar handbook for repressive violence: once Aeneas and his fellow-Trojans arrive on the coast of Italy, they find that they must fight a series of wars with an indigenous population that, eventually, they brutally subjugate.

Indeed, “repressive violence” is at the heart of the University’s mythic version of itself, as revealed in its nomenclature, architecture, and statuary and is, of course, the source of the ongoing protests against the oppression of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color).

Acting on his ambitions to expand USC’s empire, Nikias raised the funds to build University Village in the midst of USC’s economically impoverished neighborhood. In the process, large numbers of homes and businesses were destroyed. At the entrance to this anachronistically neo-Gothic development, Nikias placed a statue of Hecuba, ahistorically designated as “Tommy Trojan’s female companion.” At the foot of this imposing monument of a white woman (Hecuba) are smaller carvings of women representing “the six ethnicities,” which in fact refer mostly to racial categories — “African,” “Asian,” “Native American,” etcetera. The twenty-first century statue and its carvings mark not the future heralded by the disgraced Nikias but a regression to the past, recalling President KleinSmid’s contribution to eugenics and to his promotion of “scientific” racism.

As much as we love the great things about our campus and are tempted to end by calling for a positive attitude (“fight on!” — so fun to say!), we would rather issue a call, in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other activist groups, to transform the entire ideological ethos of the campus. USC has increasingly become an out-of-step institution, with a crafted symbolism of cultural signifiers that promote racist cultural nostalgia. While we realize that it is unlikely USC will throw out these monuments, we call on USC to put such branding efforts behind it and to critically resist the nostalgia for its white origin story. Beyond USC, we applaud any and all efforts both on the streets and on our campuses to debate, research, specify, and, if harm is being caused, remove symbols that oppress and violate others.

We offer these examples from our own institution as illustrations of how “nomenclature” and symbology reveal the deep embeddedness of institutions of higher learning in histories of white supremacy. We hope that this analysis will serve as encouragement to other institutions to engage in similar work, and to delve deeply into their own specific dark histories. Cultural symbols have a profound effect. Racist ones inflict on a daily basis psychic wounds that diminish the very goals for which universities claim to strive (open mindedness, learning in a safe environment, equity, freedom of expression, respect). It is these forms of oppression that are leading masses of people to reject everything they stand for, decapitating, defacing, and destroying statues around the world.

Amelia Jones is the Robert A. Day Professor, Roski School of Art & Design at USC.

Tania Modleski is the Florence R. Scott Professor Emerita of English at USC.