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Back in the 1980s, the culture wars were at full pitch, with ethnic groups competing with one another for time and space in the social studies and history curriculum. In 1987, Jesse Jackson led a demonstration of 500 protesters at Stanford University chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go!” In 1989, the introductory Western Culture program was replaced by “Culture, Ideas, and Values,” which taught an inclusive approach to race, class, and gender.
The battles over inclusion and diversity were numerous. Ultimately, it seemed over the past twenty years, we as a society reached a new equilibrium. We (that is, in movies, television, the media generally, in sports, in politics, in government, in industry, and in the school curriculum) recognize that many different groups and individuals played important roles in forging this nation and continue to do so today. Inclusion and diversity are more than words, they are an ideal for which we continually strive.
Trumpism revived an old and toxic element: White Supremacy. His praise of groups like the Proud Boys, his refusal to disavow them or even the Ku Klux Klan, allowed such groups to come out from under a big rock of infamy and crawl back into the edges of the mainstream.
The resurgence of hate groups and their open advocacy of violence against others is a direct rebuke to what seemed to be (at least for a time) the triumph of multiculturalism and inclusion.
Once you open this spigot, it is hard to turn it off, and the demands for group recognition and flow in many directions.
Consider the heated reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Critics called it racist, when in fact it was a demand for the recognition that systemic racism is deeply institutionalized and needs to be confronted and changed. The widespread and multiracial protests that followed the murder of George Floyd energized allies of racial justice and angered the newly awakened White Supremacists.
When loosely organized and disorganized groups began pulling down Confederate statues, that caused a backlash. Trump refused the Defense Appropriations Bill because it included a provision to rename military bases named for Confederate generals (who were, after all, traitors to the United States). Congress overrode his veto, not necessarily because they disagreed with him, but because they wanted the armed forces to get a deserved pay raise.
In San Francisco, the school board voted 6-1 to strip the names of prominent individuals from 44 school buildings, which led to an outcry because some of the names that will be removed are George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Revere, and Dianne Feinstein. The school district, which has more than 57,000 students enrolled, is changing the schools named after historical figures linked to “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,” according to the text of the resolution.
For starters, it is always a bad idea to name a building for a living person. There should be a rule against it.
Schools that will be renamed include: Abraham Lincoln High School, George Washington High School, Dianne Feinstein Elementary, Roosevelt Middle School, Jefferson Elementary and Alamo Elementary. Lincoln was chosen based on “his treatment of First Nation peoples,” teacher Jeremiah Jeffries told the San Francisco Chronicle in December 2020. Washington and Jefferson were slaveowners. Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor, was listed for reportedly ordering a Confederate flag to be replaced after it was torn down, according to the Sacramento Bee. The news also comes more than a year after the school board voted to cover a controversial mural depicting images of slavery and dead Native Americans at George Washington High School.
The board was partially motivated to draft the resolution after the deadly “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. “This resolution came to the school board in the wake of the attacks in Charlottesville,” said San Francisco Board of Education President Gabriela López. “And we are working alongside the rest of the country to dismantle symbols of racism and White supremacy culture. “San Francisco is not the only city to take pass such a resolution.
In recent years, city councils and school districts nationwide have renamed buildings and removed monuments dedicated to Confederate leaders who fought to preserve slavery and White supremacy in America. In September of 2020, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) identified more than 240 schools across the country that bear the name of a Confederate leader. More than 30 schools in the US have been renamed since 2014 in order to eliminate any link to Confederacy, according to the EJI.
San Francisco Mayor London Breed said she endorses the move to rename the schools but wonders why the board was not making plans to reopen the schools.
The board has invited suggestions for new names for the schools.
I suggest that they be called by numbers, not by names. Why not High School #1, Public School #2? That way they will never offend anyone and their names will live forever.
I went to a junior high school in Houston named for a Confederate general, Albert Sidney Johnson Junior High. The name and the school are long gone. Good riddance! (I still remember the marching song, however, which was catchy.)
But it gets wilder still in North Carolina. There, the newly elected Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson, who is African American, accuses the schools of indoctrinating students and calls for changing the state social studies curriculum so that it does not acknowledge systemic racism. Lt. Governor Robinson has collected nearly 20,000 signatures to endorse his views. His petition says:
THE NORTH CAROLINA STATE BOARD OF EDUCATION will vote Thursday, Feb. 4, to adopt new state social studies standards, kindergarten through high school.
The (CL.B.1) standard states: “Explain how individual values and societal norms contribute to institutional discrimination and the marginalization of minority groups living under the American system of government.”
The proposed standards are political in nature and paint America as being systematically racist. These divisive standards consistently separate Americans into groups in an effort to undermine our unity. The proposed standards indoctrinate our students against our great country and our founders. The standards are not age-appropriate in the elementary grades. Will you stand with Lt. Governor Robinson in rejecting the current standards the State Board of Education is planning to vote on?
There may be a moral to this story, but I am not sure what it is.
My takeaway: Tell the truth as best you know it. Respect other people. Listen to them. Don’t try to push your views on others who disagree. Pay attention to historians. Rely on reputable sources. Teach the conflicts and debates. Don’t die on the wrong hill.