Public schools

San Francisco School Board President Says Critics of School Renaming Are Undermining Anti-Racist Work

"What I keep hearing is you're trying to undermine the work that has been done through this process."


In Following the Equator, an 1897 book of social commentary, Mark Twain wrote: "In the first place, God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made school boards."

He certainly could have been talking about San Francisco's current school board, which is now lashing out at critics of its idiosyncratic push to purge the schools of historical names deemed problematic: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Dianne Feinstein, and 40 others. (Indeed, if there were any public schools in San Francisco named for Twain, the renaming committee might very well have jettisoned the acclaimed American author—an ardent champion of anti-slavery and anti-imperialist causes—because characters in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn are historically accurate and use the N-word in a pejorative way.)

In an eye-opening interview with The New Yorker's Isaac Chotiner, SFUSD Board President Gabriela Lopez shrugged off perceptive questions about the decisions to rename Paul Revere Preparatory School, James Lick Middle School, and Lowell High School, each of which was based on faulty reasoning. For instance, the renaming committee charged Paul Revere with leading an expedition to colonize the Penobscot Native Americans in 1779; he was actually carrying out an attack on British naval forces during the War of Independence.

Here's how Lopez responded to Chotiner's question about this:

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.

Chotiner then again pointed out that the renaming committee was simply misinformed about the existence of these ties. Lopez did not appreciate his efforts to "discredit" the school board's noble work:

So then you go into discrediting the work that they're doing, and the process that they put together in order to create this list. So when we begin to have these conversations, and we're pointing to that, and we're given the reasoning and they're sharing why they made this choice and why they're putting it out there, I don't want to get into a process where we then discredit the work that this group has done.

Chotiner then pushed Lopez to concede that some of the work is obviously flawed. Lopez responded that she was open to seeing it that way, but nevertheless stood by it. She also suggested that people object to renaming schools because they object to any conversation about racism, both historical and ongoing.

"The real issue is how we are challenged when we talk about racism," she said.

The conversation continued:

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?

No, because I've already shared with you that the people who have contributed to this process are also part of a community that is taking it as seriously as we would want them to. And they're contributing through diverse perspectives and experiences that are often not included, and that we need to acknowledge.

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.

Ideally, the head of a school board would express more than a passing interest in correcting the significant, uncontested errors that undergird the renaming effort. But Lopez is essentially arguing that anti-racism takes precedence over accuracy, and that anyone asking too many questions about all this is a saboteur. It apparently has not occurred to her that if the school board's efforts are based on faulty assumptions, then the campaign to undermine them is in fact a public service.

There are plenty of other issues with the renaming drive. The Atlantic's Gary Kamiya touched on several of them:

The committee also failed to consistently apply its one-strike-and-you're-out rule. When one member questioned whether Malcolm X Academy should be renamed in light of the fact that Malcolm was once a pimp, and therefore subjugated women, the committee decided that his later career redeemed his earlier missteps. Yet no such exceptions were made for Lincoln, Jefferson, and others on the list.

Since the San Francisco school board's bizarre priorities have become a national controversy, it's easy to forget that the underlying issue is the education of public school children. Are the public employees tasked with administering this education competent and trustworthy? That's what is at stake, and I think it's hard to conclude that someone who manifests this level of disinterest in historical accuracy is the best person to be in charge of the schools.

The problem hardly begins and ends with Lopez. SFUSD's vice president is a woman named Alison Collins. Here are some comments that Collins made in October:

"When we're talking about…meritocracy, especially meritocracy based on standardized testing, I'm just going to say it, in this day and age we can't mince words, those are racist systems," said Collins. "If you're going to say that merit is fair, it's the antithesis of fair, and it's the antithesis of just."

Collins is reciting the progressive creed on standardized tests—albeit one that is completely divorced from reality. Standardized testing results do reflect existing racial inequalities, but they are less easily gamed than other criteria often considered in college admissions. Poor students of color may not perform as well on tests as their wealthy, white counterparts, but their opportunities to pad resumes and applications with extracurricular activities are even more disparately limited.

Moreover, it's odd for an educator to assert that not only is one specific method of measuring merit flawed, but that the idea of merit itself is unjust, unfair, and racist. We should not wish to discourage poor students of color by essentially telling them that they cannot succeed—that there is no system under which their success could be measured—because of their race. Consider that the most hardcore racist would probably assert something similar: White people are better and smarter than black people because they are white and black people are black. (At some point, this begins to resemble that Ryan Long video, "When Wokes And Racists Actually Agree on Everything.")

To sum things up, the president of San Francisco's school board thinks schools should be renamed even if the renaming committee erred in its thinking, and the vice president of the school board thinks merit is a racist concept and any attempt to measure merit represents the antithesis of justice. Are these schools in good hands? Would any parent willingly trust the members of this board to tutor their children, let alone plan the entire educational experience of thousands of kids?