The movement to change the names of dozens of San Francisco public schools hit a roadblock on Sunday when the education council said it was canceling the name change process until schools reopen for the in-person learning, a blow to activists in the city who have been criticized by both right and left for their name change plan.
After years of discussions and committee meetings, the San Francisco school board voted six to one in January to rename 44 schools in the district that it believed honored people with discriminatory legacies. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California; naturalist John Muir; the Spanish colonizer Vasco Nunez de Balboa; and former Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were among those whom the council deemed “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings… of oppressed women… leading to genocide; or… reduces the chances of those of us having the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Schools should come up with alternative names, the council said.
The reaction was immediate. The editorial board of the San Francisco Chronicle denounced the move. Fox News and others have said changing schools named after Lincoln and Washington is a step too far.
Experts called it liberal overstepping, stirred up madness, canceled culture. But unlike usual reactions from the right to progressive proposals, the school board has also faced negative reactions from the left.
The city’s mayor, London Breed, a Democrat, joined the chorus of critics in January, calling the plan “offensive” and distracting from more pressing issues like getting students back to class.
“In the midst of this once-in-a-century challenge to hear that the district is focusing its energy and resources on renaming schools – schools they haven’t even opened – is offensive,” Breed said.
It was this juxtaposition – working to rename closed schools to in-person learning – that ultimately blocked the process, but activists and some board members said the comparison created a false choice. The two issues had little to do with each other, and their merging only fueled the flames of the reaction, they said.
Play from all sides
San Francisco, no stranger to culture wars, has once again found itself at the center of a national battle as the name change plan attracted attention.
Then-President Donald Trump weighed in on the school’s name change debate in December, calling Twitter “so ridiculous and unfair” on Twitter.
Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said “Abraham Lincoln… George Washington… even Diane friggin ‘Feinstein: NONE is awake enough for the radical left that hates America. It will never stop, until the Americans say “ENOUGH !!” and denounce it for the ignorant nonsense that it is.
A senior adviser to the state governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, didn’t look too different from Trump when he told Politico that his party had “become parodies of ourselves.”
Those involved in the movement said the violent reaction was a deliberate misinterpretation of their work.
Mr Villaluna, a longtime San Francisco resident involved in the renaming effort that uses their pronouns, said the logic that the two discussions – renaming the school and reopening them – cannot happen simultaneously did not match.
“I don’t even know how to answer,” they said. “Why are we doing this in a pandemic? I mean, we have to do things in this global pandemic and we are all still doing things in a global pandemic.
Alison Collins, a school board member who voted for the change, said the intention was not to erase history but to “create space for new people who deserve to be celebrated.”
“No one will know who George Washington is. No one will know who Lincoln is, ”Collins said.
“There is going to be a Lincoln High. Search it on Google. How many are there in the country? ” she said. “These people have lived their lives. They are celebrated. They left.”
In fact, she said the time spent responding to negative feedback takes the board “away from the work we’d like to do … opening schools and improving distance learning, for students who won’t be able to get in all of it. after”.
San Francisco Unified School District board chair Gabriela Lopez backed the name change but ultimately sided with her critics, announcing on Sunday that she would suspend the name change effort until the schools reopen.
“We need to slow down and provide more opportunities for the community,” Lopez wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “This can only happen after returning from our schools in person.”
Why change the names?
Villaluna said the impetus to rename came from a simple desire: wanting their future kindergarten to go to a school named after a local person who has helped the community.
“Why can’t we find new heroes to raise?” they asked. “I am just a parent who loves my child and wants to be involved in our public school district. You think it’s going to stay a local thing, but it’s still going to explode nationally.
The process, organizers said, was initiated in response to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists rallied to oppose the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee .
“I really understand the impulse to rethink some of the names of local schools in San Francisco, in light of what happened in Charlottesville,” said Riché Richardson, associate professor of African-American literature at the University. Cornell.
Richardson helped spark a debate to rename Aunt Jemima, explaining what the name and symbol meant, her racist heritage, and how the syrup and pancake brand perpetuated a black anti-plantation myth.
“We have to be careful,” she said. “Ideally, we want public buy-in as much as possible. This is especially important because there are so many different points of view floating around that people have to understand the reasons for the changes to accept them. “
Brandee Marckmann, who led the initiative at the primary school where she is a parent, felt that she preferred that her child did not attend a school named in honor of a former segregationist mayor.
With members of the school board and other parents, she had been working on this issue for a few years, mainly in volunteer committees who, thanks to the participation of the community, tried to find a way forward.
Instead of tackling the problem, critics want to slander those working for progress as “erasing history,” she said. What these critics are creating, in his opinion, is a culture where building inclusiveness is impossible without “whitelash”, no matter what the wishes of the community.
Marckmann said those she was in contact with had embraced the change and were excited to pick new names. Students got involved, looking not only for the people their schools were nominated for, but also for local personalities they could possibly nominate for news. Suddenly the kids cared about the local history and topography, said Marckmann, wanting to know who came before them and helped bring their city to where it is today.
This is not the first time that the school district has faced backlash when trying to update its schools. In 2019, the school board caused an uproar when it decided to paint a series of murals at George Washington High School that showed Washington was owning slaves and beginning to conquer Native Americans. The council ultimately reversed its decision, choosing to cover the murals instead. But the damage was done.