The San Francisco Unified School District, “is planning to rename a school named after Abraham Lincoln because the former president did not demonstrate that ‘black lives mattered to him,” the Globe reported in December. “President Abraham Lincoln, considered one of the greatest U.S. Presidents in the country’s history, only abolished slavery in 1863 with the Emancipation Proclamation.”
In late January, the San Francisco School Board voted 6-1 to rename 44 schools around the city over “racist” namesakes, of historical figures in U.S. history from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln to Paul Revere to U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the Globe reported. The school board claimed the change was needed due to calls from a small minority of people in the city who believed the namesakes were “slave owners, had a part in slavery and genocide, were part of human rights violations, or were known racists or white supremacists.”
Has California landed on Planet Stupid?
The Globe reported within days the outrage over the Board’s strange decision to rename the schools ballooned. To no one’s surprise, a petition was launched almost immediately and exploded in popularity, gathering 10,000 signatures within hours.
Then is was reported that the school board was considering the Grateful Dead’s frontman and lead guitarist Jerry Garcia for a school renaming.
Just when it appeared the San Francisco School Board could not be more out of touch, New Yorker magazine published the strangest interview with Gabriela López, 30, the head of the San Francisco Board of Education, about the decision to rename the 44 public schools.
The New Yorker’s Isaac Chotine asked several questions of Lopez, and it became evident quickly that Chotiner found her answers vacuous and shallow.
I read that you stated, “This in no way erases our history. It cannot, and we will not forget the past. But we can honor the work that has been done to dismantle racism and white-supremacy culture.” Can you explain what you meant by that?
Lopez: “There’s this idea that because we’re removing the names we’re somehow removing the stories in what we’re learning, and that in fact is not the case. It’s really just sharing in our schools what is and isn’t uplifted. And that’s part of my work as a school-board member. That’s been my work as a teacher. What are we highlighting in our classes? And what are we teaching our students? And what isn’t being uplifted in our time and our public-school system that we’ve seen throughout history?”
Lopez, who has been a teacher of Spanish Immersion for 4 years, attended California State University, Dominguez Hills, and majored in Liberal Studies and Women’s Studies, and went on to UCLA where she received a Masters of Education.
Is what you’re saying that in practice we don’t necessarily want to uplift, say, Lincoln, but that doesn’t mean we won’t teach the Civil War or the Emancipation Proclamation?
Lopez” Absolutely. But, even with that, it’s talking about the brutality and the truth that is often not discussed in our classrooms. And I’m thinking even to my own experience and my own learning, all that I got through my college experiences, that we gain through ethnic studies, is not a process that we normally see in our school career. And so it is discussing the history. Of course, that’s not going anywhere.
He asks her about the importance of learning of history, and why the committee didn’t want historians to testify:
Lopez: After explaining that instead of historians, they “included a diverse set of community members, people with a set of experiences that contribute to these discussions, people from different backgrounds who are also educated in their own rights,” she fully explains what is wrong with history: “My work is in sharing with students this understanding of our history. I think that for me, it’s important to uplift. This does not cancel history. It’s a moment and an opportunity to uplift things that we normally aren’t uplifting in our public-school system, in our society. And that means other voices, other experiences of diverse community members that would bring pride to our student body, and that would allow for students to learn more about themselves. It’s really moving away from this idea that somehow in the taking away of these names, we’re also taking away the stories, and we’re taking away what happened. We can’t move on without that understanding. We can’t heal as a society without that understanding.”
Chotiner challenges the historical inaccuracy of some of the committee’s decisions:
…some of the historical reasoning behind these decisions has been contested—not so much how we should view the fact that George Washington was a founder of the country and a slave holder but, rather, factual things like Paul Revere’s name being removed for the Penobscot Expedition, which was not actually about the colonization of Native American lands. And so there were questions about whether historians should have been involved to check these things.
This is Lopez’s answer: “So, for me, I guess it’s just the criteria was created to show if there were ties to these specific themes, right? White supremacy, racism, colonization, ties to slavery, the killing of indigenous people, or any symbols that embodied that. And the committee shared that these are the names that have these ties. And so, for me, at this moment, I have the understanding we have to do the teaching, but also I do agree that we shouldn’t have these ties, and this is a way of showing it.”
That is the answer about historical accuracy from the President of the San Francisco Board of Education. It gets worse.
But it seems like we should have some sense of whether what they did was historically correct or not. No?
I’m open for that conversation.
O.K. Well, I just mentioned the Paul Revere thing. I know there was a question about James Russell Lowell and whether he wanted Black people to vote, which he was actually in favor of. The name of this businessman, James Lick, was ordered removed because his foundation funded an installation that didn’t go up until almost two decades after he died.
Right, I see what you mean.
But that’s not something you’re concerned about?
No. I mean, I wouldn’t phrase it that way, either. I think it would just require more dialogue.
When Chotiner says more accuracy in history is needed, Lopez replies:
So here’s my piece. The real issue is how we are challenged when we talk about racism. And how then the masses come out in order to combat this, when it’s an idea that harms what we’re used to. My current situation is sharing with people very simply that I don’t think it’s appropriate to have symbols of racism and white-supremacy culture. And we’re trying to have this discussion, and what I’ve seen throughout my time on the board, whenever issues like this come out or arise, people need to combat it and try to find any problems around what we’re discussing, because it’s not something that we should be open to having a discussion about. It’s something that people have a lot of issues with.
He challenges Lopez about the historical errors: So none of the errors that I read to you about previous entries made you worried that maybe this was done in a slightly haphazard way?
I’m not quite sure what that means when we are talking about things that did or didn’t happen.
I think what you’re pointing to and what I keep hearing is you’re trying to undermine the work that has been done through this process. And I’m moving away from the idea that it was haphazard.
It gets worse.
Chotiner notes that a lot of the commentary about the school names is focussed specifically on Lincoln, and then asks Lopez her thoughts about how Lincoln should be viewed.
Lopez: I think that the killing of indigenous peoples and that record is something that is not acknowledged. It’s something that people are now learning about, and due to this process. And so we just have to do the work of that extra learning when we’re having these discussions.
And then she adds, “I think Lincoln gets more praise than the . . . how can I say this? Yeah. I don’t know. I don’t think that . . . Lincoln is not someone that I typically tend to admire or see as a hero, because of these specific instances where he has contributed to the pain of the decimation of people—that’s not something that I want to ignore. It’s something that I’m learning about and that I know it’s not often spoken about.”
“Vacuous” and “ignorant” does not begin to describe the President of the San Francisco Board of Education. How did this happen?
Her bio answers that question: “Outside of the classroom, López is a core organizer at Teachers 4 Social Justice.”
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