By Larry Levine –
Quick. Give me the names of 44 perfect people. People from any time in history up to the present. People who never did anything wrong, wrote anything offensive, or thought an unacceptable thoughts. Each of those people will be measured against today’s standards and judged subjectively by other people who apparently consider themselves perfect, or at least superior. There will be no consideration of the historical context that existed at the time and place of the disqualifying actions, writings or thoughts.
If you can supply such a list, or even a part of it, I’ll be happy to pass it along to the San Francisco Board of Education. They are having a crisis over the names of schools and whether they know it yet or not it isn’t easy to find perfect people. If people like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Muir, and Dianne Feinstein don’t live up to the requirements of the 12 members of a Citizen’s Committee on School Renaming, well it will be difficult to find people who do.
By the way, we need these names by April because San Francisco is fast-tracking this move to hide history, which has drawn opposition from the city’s African American woman Mayor, London Breed, who wrote that the district should slow down and apply more urgency to getting schools re-opened and leave the naming debate for later.
That seems to matter not at all to the full-speed-ahead neo-progressives who want to strike Lincoln’s name because The Great Emancipator allegedly mistreated Indigenous Peoples and didn’t show sufficient fealty to “black lives matter”250 years ago when he let the nation through the Civil War and signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
Feinstein’s transgression? In 1986 – 35 years ago – while Mayor of San Francisco she allowed a Confederate flag to be replaced on a pole outside city hall after it was removed illegally by an activist. It was one of 16 flags being flown in a display of U.S. history. Snopes.com, an online fact-checker, has a full account of the incident that paints Feinstein’s actions in a very different light. A cynic might wonder if the real gripe against Feinstein is that she hugged Republican Senator Lindsay Graham after a contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearing last year and the Confederate flag incident is a red herring?
Thomas Jefferson is on the list of names to be axed along with such notables of the revolutionary war as James Madison and George Washington because they owned slaves. That’s the same Thomas Jefferson who as an attorney defended enslaved people in freedom lawsuits, argued slavery was a violation against the law of nature and whose views on slavery led to his banning the international slave trade as president.
Madison and Washington were among the leaders in the creation of the United States. They embodied the ideals of the Enlightenment as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence where they inscribed their commitment to equality and opposition to tyranny and oppression.
All three – Jefferson, Madison and Washington – were born into the planter class in Virginia nearly 400 years ago. As such they inherited land and slaves. Yet all three came to oppose slavery and support the emancipation that ultimately led to the fight for freedom called the Civil War.
Then there’s Commodore Sloat Elementary School, named for John D. Sloat. He’s on the hit list because members of the commission view him as a “colonizer” who “stole California from Mexico.”
One wonders if members of the committee consider measuring the entire lives and historical roles of Franklin Delano Roosevelt who led the nation out of the Great Depression and through WW II, Francis Scott Key of “Oh, Say Can You See …” fame, and Paul Revere of “The Red Coats Are Coming …” notoriety before we consign them to the historical scrap heap.
The specifics of the case for removal of individual names probably isn’t as important as the general philosophy of the situation. If one were willing to cherry-pick the lives and backgrounds of any person, living or dead, there may be no one left who could pass muster.
The San Francisco School Renaming Committee is comprised of 12 people appointed by the superintendent of schools. They recommended the renaming of 44 schools last week and the school board promised to have it done by April. In a statement the school board said it will commit to renaming schools named after “historical figures who engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings; or who oppressed women, inhibiting societal progress; or whose actions led to genocide; or who otherwise significantly diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But wait. The people who first wrote that phrase into the Declaration of Independence – “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” – are among those whose names are recommended to be erased.
San Francisco radio station KGO reported committeemembers are targeting schools currently named for “anyone directly involved in the colonization of people, slave owners or participants in enslavement, perpetrators of genocide or slavery, those who exploit workers/people, those who directly oppressed or abused women, children, queer or transgender people, those connected to any human rights or environmental abuse [and] those who are known racists and/or white supremacists and/or espoused racist beliefs.”
As part of the renaming committee’s Guiding Principals the commission says it intends to replace the offending names with those of people “grounded in social & economic justice” that “bring joy and healing to the world,” reflect the district’s “core values,” honor the “heritage of unceded ancestral homelands, Indigenous Nations and Indigenous communities,” and “reflect the diversity” of the city’s residents.
Already there’s a backlash against the whole idea as gleefully reported by Fox News.
I have a couple of suggest as to how the school district and resolve the situation and call of the challenging search for perfect people. You can’t change history by denying it; you can change the future by learning from history. Instead of trying to erase history how about using it to teach. Students relate to their schools so why not use the names to engage student interest in that particular namesake. Teach them about the flaws and imperfections of historical figures as well as their accomplishments. Show the students there are no perfect people but that even imperfect people can make significant contributions. It’s called tolerance and for a young person in his or her formative years, likely suffering degrees of self-esteem issues, it might even be inspiring.
The San Francisco school board needs to face the fact that it will have to accept people with flaws when naming schools or they will be left with no qualifying names. Of course, the whole exercise is subjective to begin with because the people making the judgements are themselves flawed and no doubt teeming with their own biases.
If that isn’t acceptable, here another suggest for my friends by the bay. Why not just scrap the whole idea of naming schools and give them numbers? In Brooklyn NY in the 1940s I attended Public School 189 (P.S. 189). It’s still there with that name. Nothing racist or controversial about it. The number 189 never has done anything to enslave anyone or demean or belittle any group or steal land from any nation? So, San Francisco, try this: George Washington school becomes P.S. 1; Abraham Lincoln school becomes P.S. 2; John Muir can be P.S. 3, and so on through the entire roster of 125 schools.
Now, listen to Mayor Breed. Get to work on a plan to re-open the schools by April with the same urgency you seem to feel about stripping history from the facades of those closed schools.