An old saying goes that the more things change, the more they stay the same. In 1988, the late President George H. W. Bush rolled out his vision for a “kinder, gentler America.” This lofty ideal was met with disparagement for symbolism that lacked teeth.
More than three decades later, the trudge to a happy destiny is still on, exemplified in the crusade of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), as well as elsewhere, to change names of buildings to reflect diversity and inclusion. Striking a chord that pleases everyone—or at least offends no one—is a slippery slope, like trying to find a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
SFUSD met a glitch in its renaming crusade when a lawsuit was filed against its school board from—of all places—the city of San Francisco itself. In the middle of a pandemic, priorities other than getting pupils back into the classrooms proved to be over the top.
“I know this is a drastic step,” said San Francisco Mayor London Breed, referencing the litigation, “but I feel we are out of options at this point.”
School board President Gabriela López and two other board members face a recall for plodding ahead with renaming in the climate of COVID. López stated in a press conference that she accepted the “mistakes” associated with the hurry to rehab school names.
“We will not be taking valuable time from our board agendas to further discuss this, as we need to prioritize reopening,” she said.
The renaming issue is further faulted with claims that the committee that was assigned to the renaming project based its findings on Google and Wikipedia research, without input from historians.
SFUSD is in one of the most culturally and linguistically diverse cities in the nation, one that is universally heralded as the barometer of social trends in the United States. This may help to make sense of its rah-rah to topple the old things that don’t conform to contemporary models of virtue and bring in new ones that do.
San Francisco is “the center of progressive liberal ethos,” opined one-time San Francisco Mayor Art Agnos. In the 1950s, the city served as the center of the “Beat Generation,” an artistic and literary movement headed by poet Allen Ginsberg and writer Jack Kerouac. About a decade later, another kind of iconoclast, the hippies—young, free-spirited people—flocked to the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, where they championed causes from the anti-war movement against America’s involvement in Vietnam, to the environment, to the women’s movement.
Under the leadership of powerful politicians Phillip Burton and Willie Brown, the landscape changed from conservative to progressive politically and socially, said Scott Shafer, politics editor at KQED, in a podcast.
In the podcast, he observed that the San Francisco Bay Area has been solidly Democratic since 2018 when its last Republican member of the state assembly, Catherine Baker, lost re-election.
The year 2018 was also when SFUSD started its renaming mission, propelled by the deadly car attack on counterdemonstrators at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the year before. The tragic death in 2020 of George Floyd, blamed on racial profiling and police heavy-handedness with persons of color, further fueled a national upheaval of icons construed to signify racism. Anything to do with honoring the Confederacy in the American Civil War was under attack. The putsch included movements to rename streets, bridges, and buildings. A bill to rebrand military bases named after Confederate leaders made it to then-President Donald Trump, who vetoed it.
The Scramble to Change Names
Sports teams, from high school to professional, rushed to change nicknames and logos with legacies attached to racism. The NFL’s Washington and MLB’s Cleveland teams, whose names referred to indigenous people, are presently on the hunt for new names. Valparaiso University in Indiana now goes by “the Brown and Gold,” having dropped the “Crusaders” moniker, which was a tribute to Christians in medieval history who launched fierce expeditions against Muslims in the Holy Land. “The Crusader” also happens to be the name of the official magazine of the Ku Klux Klan. The College of Holy Cross, in Massachusetts, still calls itself the Crusaders.
The momentum to sanitize the present by shedding perceived past injustices may unwittingly have brought to the fore a quagmire in etymology and usage. “Crusade” is defined by Cambridge Dictionary as “a long and determined attempt to achieve something that you believe in strongly.” Will the association of this word with the objectives of nonprofit charities, for instance, result in its being taboo for use in awareness or fundraising campaigns—or “crusades”? The possibilities are endless when it comes to excising and reordering words whose meanings may not jive with modern clamors to cleanse the language.
California State University, East Bay, in Hayward, California, voted to drop the name Pioneers, which a student leader described as representing genocide—a harken to Manifest Destiny, the 19th century doctrine calling for westward expansion, which resulted in the displacement and death of indigenous peoples. Similarly, Cal State Long Beach removed its 49ers nickname, which paid homage to precious metal prospectors in California’s Gold Rush (1849–1851), who were said to have “wiped out 80 percent of the American Indian population,” according to the Long Beach State student newspaper, which, ironically, still goes by The Daily Forty-Niner.
The university is now known as “the Beach,” and its baseball team goes by “the Dirtbags,” a reference to unkempt or unpleasant persons.
The rechristening of school athletic team names is not new—and not always motivated by social justice. In the 1960s, the student body at Northwestern University in Illinois voted to change the name of the Wildcats to something unique. The student choice was the Jimi Hendrix-inspired “Purple Haze.” But this not-so-subtle reference to drug culture made it easy for administrators to veto the student will.
A decade later, Stanford University, whose mascot was the Indian, matched its nickname with its official color (cardinal red) and adopted a new mascot, a redwood tree. Similarly, St. Bonaventure in Salamanca, New York, whose name honored the Seneca Indian Nation on whose land the university sat, transformed to the Bonnies. St. John’s in New York got rid of a pejorative for Native Americans and chose the Red Storm.
Names that Evade the Radar
Names of populations not traditionally oppressed, such as the “Fightin’ Irish” of the University of Notre Dame and the Western Kentucky University’s Hilltoppers—an association with hillbillies—elude the name-change radar.
Surprisingly, the crusade to overhaul names has not caught up with Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi), which has retained the nickname “Rebels,” after fighters in the Confederacy. This apparent reprieve might be due to the university removing the state flag with a Confederate emblem and reinventing the optics of rebels to signify anyone who rises in opposition to established order, such as people who fought for independence from Britain.
Washington and Lee University in Virginia has thus far avoided assault on its name. “Lee” is the Civil War general Robert E. Lee, whose monument in Richmond could not dodge the bullet and was vandalized last summer.
Also under the radar is a school nicknamed after an animal, “Gamecock,” the mascot of the University of South Carolina. Gamecocks gouge each other while spectators wager. Though illegal in the United States, cockfighting persists surreptitiously.
Gamecocks, which look like the Gallic rooster, the national bird of France, carry an austere legacy in U.S. history. Though cockfighting was never popular, these fowl were brought onto the White House lawn on occasion to entertain the president and his guests. Presidents on whose watch cockfights occurred are on the hit list for removal at SFUSD, but the reason has to do with histories of owning slaves and actions that call into question views on race and gender.
‘Symbols of Racism’
The SFUSD school board made renaming official in January with a resolution, which led to the lawsuit. The resolution, passed by a 6–1 margin, established a rationale for the replacement of names at 44 schools with ties to “slavery, oppression, or racism [and] the mistreatment of children, queer or transgender people.”
Noted board president López, “The school-names change is our work alongside the rest of the country to dismantle symbols of racism and white supremacy culture.”
Presidents Washington and Jefferson owned slaves, which was sufficient ground to banish their names. Andrew Jackson is infamously linked to the Trail of Tears, the consequence of the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which forcibly removed tribes from their ancestral homeland in the Southeastern United States. Jackson’s face is to be replaced in the $20 bank note by that of Harriet Tubman, a leader of the Underground Railroad in the Civil War who helped slaves escape their captors.
Most every schoolchild knows who freed the slaves with his famous “Emancipation Proclamation.” But the panel has another take on the 16th president of the United States, who famously grew up in a log cabin and taught himself to read.
“Lincoln, like the presidents before him and most after, did not show through policy or rhetoric that black lives ever mattered to them outside of human capital and as casualties of wealth,” said Jeremiah Jeffries, chair of the renaming committee and a first-grade teacher.
Not everyone shared this view. Historian Harold Holzer is a Lincoln scholar and director of Hunter College’s Roosevelt House of Public Policy Institute. He said to CBS News, “Lincoln is much more liberator than he is an abuser on the subject of racial justice.”
Holzer warned of the dangers of taking a wrecking ball to the past and applying present standards of morality to historical figures from long ago. “We expect everyone to be perfect. We expect everyone to be enlightened. But an enlightened person of 1865 is not the same as an enlightened person of 2021.”
The list identified many additional historical figures: naturalist John Muir, 19th century novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, Spanish priest Junipero Serra, and American Revolution patriot Paul Revere, whom the panel mistakenly connected to colonization of a Native American tribe. It included Francis Scott Key, whose “Star-Spangled Banner” contained scornful lyrics about slaves who had joined the royal forces of England.
Dianne Feinstein Elementary School, the namesake of California’s senior U.S. senator and former mayor of San Francisco (1978–1988), is to get a name makeover. Feinstein’s reputation for leading progressive causes like gay rights and racial and gender justice is well-documented, but the panel promulgates unsubstantiated allegations that she, as mayor, ordered a replacement Confederate flag for the original that was vandalized at City Hall in 1984.
James Lowell High School is one of the best schools in the nation. A four-time Blue Ribbon school, many of Lowell’s graduates go on to elite universities. The school has produced a Supreme Court justice and three Nobel Laureates. Lowell, clearly, is a tough name to live up to. Many families apply, but few are accepted into this highly competitive magnet school. The school is named after a Civil War-era poet and abolitionist, but the name must go, the panel reckoned, based on an uncorroborated entry in Wikipedia stating that he harbored dim views of African Americans.
The estimated cost of renaming is $100,000 per school. That includes manufacturing new signage, school uniforms, and stationery letterheads.
Roosevelt Middle School, which is on the list, is in a unique category and won’t need a name redo. “Roosevelt” does not have to refer to either Theodore Roosevelt (the 26th president) or Franklin D. Roosevelt (the 32nd). Pretending it is named after Franklin’s wife, Eleanor, can satisfy the new parameters of upstanding citizenry. Eleanor transformed the role of first lady with her activism for social justice. Her name would save money and the trouble of reworking signage.
What Will the Replacements Be?
A Google Docs form is available for the public to submit recommendations for new names. Jerry Garcia (a founder of the Grateful Dead), the late poet Maya Angelou, and former President Barack Obama are among the names reported to have been proposed.
One notable historical figure by the name of Thomas Paine could be a viable candidate to name a school after. This American patriot and free thinker, whom George Washington branded the catalyst of the American Revolution for authoring “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis,” vociferously denounced slavery at a time when leaders of the young nation owned slaves, and he had a vision for global social equality.
In a comic sense, the only dirt on Paine is that he was not up on personal hygiene. Few public places in the United States bear Citizen Paine’s name, and the reason for this could stand to trip up any candidacy for an SFUSD school. Paine wrote an inflammatory treatise, “The Age of Reason,” which challenged doctrines in organized religion and brought him eternal condemnation. He was labeled an atheist, which he wasn’t, and his home in New Rochelle, New York, was firebombed by a mob. His friends in high places—the nation’s founders—turned their backs on him. He died in obscurity and relative ignominy.
Such an issue might not ordinarily be a detriment in San Francisco as it might in more traditional areas of the country, but a problem in another area could still cause a problem. Paine was a product of the Enlightenment, the philosophical movement in Europe during the 18th century that advocated ideals of reason, liberty, tolerance, a constitutional government, and separation of church and state. That period faces scrutiny from progressive ideological demagogues for purported white, Euro-centric views.
“We are unapologetically going after white supremacy, white supremacist symbols, and making these changes that people have been demanding for years,” said Jeffries, the renaming committee chair.
The never-ending path to a kinder, gentler world is through the premise taught way back in grade school called democracy, seeded by our founders, who cannot be faulted for their heritage. This suggests the engagement of the community in decisions related to the erasure and reset of namesakes on our monuments, parks, and buildings. It’s a tough act, as Holzer suggested, to hold up modern standards to past centuries in determining characters to model.
Timothy Wahl is an ESL teacher, reporter, essayist, and author living in Southern California. His most recent book is “Footballogy Elements of American Football for Non-Native Speakers of English.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.