Commentary: The Good and Bad of William Shockley

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, May 22, 2009

William Shockley was a racist. He believed African Americans were inferior and should be paid not to reproduce. But he was also a brilliant scientist who won the Nobel Prize for co-inventing the transistor, pioneering technology that ushered in the computer age. No small achievement.

The late scientist and his wife donated 28 aces to the Auburn Recreation District for a park. The bequest requires the park be named the “Nobel Laureate William B. Shockley and His Wife Emmy L. Shockley Memorial Park.” The District board voted to accept the park and name it after Shockley. I think they did the right thing.

The name emphasizes Nobel Laureate Shockley, the contributions he made that all Americans can admire. Those contributions should not be overlooked because of his wrong-headed views on race, but those wrong-headed views should not be overlooked either. When a plaque is placed, it should include information about Shockley’s achievements as well as his racist views, and a clear statement of opposition to those views.

Throughout history, people who’ve made important contributions have also harbored views about race that would be considered unacceptable today. To erase those names from public places would be to deny history - both foolish and futile.


Ginger Rutland writes for The Sacramento Bee opinion pages.