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San Francisco school renaming effort stalls after colliding with another battle: School reopening

The city’s Democratic mayor said the renaming effort was a distraction from getting kids back to the classroom. Activists said she was creating a false choice.
Stairs lead to the entrance of Abraham Lincoln High School on Dec. 17, 2020 in San Francisco.
Stairs lead to the entrance of Abraham Lincoln High School on Dec. 17, 2020 in San Francisco.Justin Sullivan / Getty Images file

The movement to change the names of dozens of San Francisco public schools hit a roadblock Sunday when the board of education said it was canceling the renaming proceedings until schools reopen for in-person learning, a blow to activists in the city who came under fire from the right and the left for their renaming plan.

After years of discussion and committee meetings, the San Francisco School Board voted six-to-one in January to rename 44 schools in the district that they felt honored people with discriminatory legacies. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; the naturalist John Muir; the Spanish colonizer Vasco Nunez de Balboa; and former presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln were among the people the board felt “engaged in the subjugation and enslavement of human beings … oppressed women ... led to genocide; or … diminished the opportunities of those amongst us to the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The schools should find alternative names, the board said.

The backlash was immediate. The San Francisco Chronicle’s editorial board denounced the decision. Fox News and others said changing schools named for Lincoln and Washington was a step too far.

Pundits called it liberal overreach, woke insanity, cancel culture. But unlike the usual right wing reactions to progressive proposals, the school board also faced backlash from the left.

The city’s mayor, London Breed, a Democrat, joined the chorus of criticism in January, calling the plan “offensive” and a distraction from more pressing issues like getting students back in the classroom.

“In the midst of this once in a century challenge, to hear that the district is focusing energy and resources on renaming schools — schools that they haven't even opened — is offensive,” Breed said.

It was ultimately this juxtaposition — working to rename schools that were closed to in-person learning — that stalled 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 conflation only fanned the flames of the backlash, they said.

George Washington High School stands in San Francisco on March 12, 2020.
George Washington High School stands in San Francisco on March 12, 2020.Jeff Chiu / AP file

Backlash from all sides

San Francisco, no stranger to the culture wars, once again found itself at the center of a national battle as the renaming plan drew attention.

Then-President Donald Trump weighed in on the school renaming debate in December, calling Twitter “so ridiculous and unfair” on Twitter.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said “Abraham Lincoln … George Washington … even Diane friggin’ Feinstein: NONE are woke enough for the America-hating radical Left. This will never stop, until Americans say ‘ENOUGH!!’ and call it out for the ignorant nonsense that it is.”

A senior adviser to the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, didn’t sound too different from Trump when he told Politico that his party had “become parodies of ourselves.

Those involved in the movement said this backlash was a willful misinterpretation of their work.

M. Villaluna, a longtime San Francisco resident involved in the renaming effort who uses they/them pronouns, said the logic that both discussions — renaming school and reopening them — can’t happen simultaneously didn’t square.

“I don’t even know how to respond,” they said. “Why are we doing this in a pandemic? I mean, we have to do stuff in this global pandemic and we are all still doing stuff in a global pandemic.”

Alison Collins, a school board member who voted for the change, said that the intent is not to erase history but to “create space for new people who deserve to be celebrated.”

“Nobody is going to not know who George Washington is. Nobody is going to not know who Lincoln is,” Collins said.

“There is going to be a Lincoln High. Google it. How many of them are there in the country?” she said. “These people have lived their lives. They are celebrated. They are gone.”

In fact, she said the time spent responding to the backlash is taking the board away “from the work we would like to be doing … opening schools and improving distance learning, for students that won’t be able to return right away.”

The San Francisco Unified School District’s board president, Gabriela Lopez, supported the renaming, but ultimately sided with its critics, announcing Sunday she would shelf the renaming effort until after schools reopened.

“We need to slow down and provide more opportunities for community input,” Lopez wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “That cannot happen until AFTER our schools are back in person.”

Image: A pedestrian walks below a sign for Dianne Feinstein Elementary School in San Francisco, on Dec. 17, 2020.
A pedestrian walks below a sign for Dianne Feinstein Elementary School in San Francisco, on Dec. 17, 2020.Jeff Chiu / AP file

Why change the names?

Villaluna said the impetus for renaming was born from a simple desire: wanting their future kindergartener to go to a school named after a local person who helped the community.

“Why can’t we find new heroes to uplift?” they asked. “I’m just a parent who loves my kid and wants to be invested in our public school district. You think it’s going to stay a local thing, but it always gets blown up at a national level.”

The process, organizers said, was started in response to the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, when white supremacists gathered in opposition to removing a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.

“I definitely understand the impulse to rethink some of the local school names in San Francisco, in light of what happened in Charlottesville,” said Riché Richardson, an associate professor of African American literature at Cornell University.

Richardson helped spark debate to rename Aunt Jemima, explaining what the name and symbol meant, its racist legacy and how the syrup and pancake mix brand perpetuated an anti-Black plantation myth.

“We have to be careful,” she said. “Ideally one wants as much public buy-in as possible. This is especially important because there are so many different points of views floating around, people need to understand the rationales for the changes in order for them to accept them.”

Brandee Marckmann, who spearheaded the initiative at the elementary school where she is a parent, felt she’d rather her child not attend a school named for a segregationist former mayor.

Along with members of the school board and other parents, she had been working on this issue for a few years, largely in volunteer committees that, through community input, tried to find a path forward.

Instead of engaging with the issue, critics want to smear those working toward progress as “erasing history,” she said. What these critics create, in her opinion, is a culture where building inclusivity is impossible without “whitelash,” no matter the community's wishes.

Marckmann said the people she’s been in contact with did buy into the change and were excited about choosing new names. Students became involved, researching not only the people for whom their schools were named, but also local figures they could possibly propose for new ones. All of a sudden, kids cared about local history and topography, Marckmann said, wanting to know who came before them and helped get their city to where it is today.

This isn’t the first time the school district faced backlash when trying to update its schools. In 2019, the school board caused an uproar by deciding to paint over a series of murals at George Washington High School that showed Washington owning slaves and beginning the conquest of Native Americans. The board ultimately reversed its decision, instead choosing to cover the murals. But the damage was done.

People fill the main entryway of George Washington High School to view the controversial 13-panel, 1,600-square foot mural, the "Life of Washington," during an open house for the public on Aug. 1, 2019, in San Francisco.Eric Risberg / AP

The mural controversy had left an impression on Marckmann, so much so that she predicted the renaming backlash.

“We have a culture of valuing art and property over the lives and psyche of Black and Indigenous students,” Marckmann said.

Villaluna wasn’t surprised by the board's decision to pause the effort and still thinks the renaming process will happen.

“I’m OK, and the work continues. We’re going to pause for a few months, and we will get started again.”