San Francisco School Board President on school renaming: Don't discredit the process even if they got it wrong

Last week I wrote about Alison Collins, the Vice President of the San Francisco School Board, who recently argued that “meritocracy” is racist. Today, Reason’s Robby Soave wrote an interesting piece about the President of the SF School Board, Gabriela Lopez. Soave notes that in an interview about the board’s decision to rename several dozen public schools, Lopez wasn’t terribly interested in the details. Little things like whether or not the board got the facts right didn’t seem to matter a great deal.

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.

I wrote about this particular bit of confusion involving Paul Revere here. Revere was a commander during a disastrous attack on the British during the Revolutionary War. According to the spreadsheet put together to defend renaming decisions, that attack “led to the colonization of the Penobscot.” Except that it did not. Here’s what School Board President Lopez had to say about that mistake when asked by interviewer Isaac Chotiner:

The reason I bring this up is that 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.

I see what you’re saying. 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.

I guess part of the problem is that the ties may not be what the committee said they were. That’s why I brought it up.

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.

If the work was wrong, shouldn’t it be discredited? I don’t think this is a terribly difficult concept. It seems to me that Lopez’ word salad answer is really about obscuring this obvious point. If something is clearly wrong, it shouldn’t be credited.

Chotiner then brought up several other instances where the group making these renaming decisions simply got the facts wrong. For instance, a businessman named Lick whose name is being removed from a school because of something a foundation with his name did two decades after his death. At first, Lopez seems to agree that factual errors might need to be reconsidered but then it’s back to more word salad.

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.

What Lopez keeps saying is that minority groups have “diverse perspectives” on these issues. That’s fine but sometimes these diverse perspectives are completely wrong and based on faulty information. It really is that simple in some of these renaming decisions. The school board shouldn’t be backing up decisions which are clearly based on false claims. The fact that the School Board President doesn’t seem willing to admit as much should worry the parents in San Francisco.