The Debate Over San Francisco’s School Names

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The Debate Over San Francisco’s School Names


Good morning.

(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up to get it delivered to your inbox.)

This morning, we’re starting with a dispatch from Thomas Fuller that has nothing to do with the pandemic:

The debate over whether to change school names in San Francisco lives on. On Wednesday, less than 12 hours after the San Francisco Board of Education voted decisively to delete the names of 44 schools in the city, Mayor London Breed issued a pointed critique that questioned the priorities of the board.

“Let’s bring the same urgency and focus on getting our kids back in the classroom, and then we can have that longer conversation about the future of school names,” Ms. Breed said.

In a 6-1 vote the board had agreed to remove the names of those “who engaged in 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.”

[Read the full story about the debate.]

On the list were George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Francis Scott Key for their ownership of slaves; Abraham Lincoln for the 1862 execution of 38 Dakota tribesmen; and Senator Dianne Feinstein for an incident in 1984 when she was mayor of San Francisco in which a Confederate flag on display was replaced after being torn down.

But on Wednesday afternoon the board appeared to backpedal, saying in a statement that the decision to change the names was not final.

I spoke with Noah Griffin, a George Washington alumnus who has been involved in other disputes involving historical legacies, including a debate over murals at his alma mater, which he supports keeping.

Here’s our conversation, lightly edited:

We are often told that as California goes, so goes the nation. Is San Francisco ahead of the curve with these name-changing proposals or out in left field?

I think ahead of the curve. When I went to Washington High School from 1960 to 1963 nobody really thought of the name very much. But as the years progressed and you had more people of color in the school, people became more awake and started to question why.

What Washington did didn’t benefit people who look like me. The stain of slave-owning is something I cannot ignore. If the name is changed so be it.

What about some of the other names, like Abraham Lincoln High School?

Lincoln is a hero to me but he is not to the Indigenous American community. Only he who wears the shoe knows how tightly it fits.

We are listening to different voices that haven’t been heard before.

And Dianne Feinstein?

I’m surprised. I worked for Dianne Feinstein as an administrative aide. We’ve been friends for almost 50 years now. I think she has been an exemplary senator.

I wouldn’t change either Lincoln or Feinstein. There may be some excesses along the way in this process.

Some proponents of the changes have warned that renaming schools after other historical figures carries the risk of the names being deleted yet again if disqualifying information emerges.

We all have faults. There is no saint without a past or no sinner without a future. But if you look at the arc of someone’s life, and if the overwhelming contribution that they made so outweighs the harm that they did, I think there can still be someone we can mark as a hero.

What message do the proposed name changes send?

Everything is up for re-evaluation. What’s true for one generation may not be true for the next.

We are living through revolutionary times.


And now, back to your regular programming: the ongoing effort to inoculate some 40 million Californians as quickly as possible.

After weeks of criticism that the state’s vaccine rollout — daunting as it may be — has been chaotic, confusing and piecemeal, Gov. Gavin Newsom this week announced that his administration was revamping its approach.

[See how the vaccine rollout is going in California and other states.]

That includes “creating a single statewide standard” for who’s eligible aimed at eliminating the differences between counties. The system still prioritizes health care workers, emergency services workers, food and agricultural workers, and teachers and school staff members, as well as people 65 and older, but after that, eligibility will move into an age-based system.

The governor also directed his administration to create one statewide network to streamline the patchwork of entities — county governments, health care providers, pharmacies, nursing homes — that were in charge of distributing vaccines.

[You can sign up to see when you’re eligible for the vaccine on this state site: myturn.ca.gov.]

As The Los Angeles Times reported, that network will be run by Blue Shield of California, the health care provider based in Oakland that serves about four million Californians. Kaiser Permanente, which has more than nine million members in California, will run a separate vaccination program.

Experts have said that giving the reins more thoroughly to health care providers might help divert some of the responsibility away from already overwhelmed county public health departments.

But it’s still a major challenge, and it’s not yet clear what specifically Blue Shield’s deal with the state entails. Plus, the speed of the rollout, as state officials have pointed out repeatedly, is dependent on how quickly the state can get ahold of doses. (President Biden pledged to speed that up on Tuesday.)


An atmospheric river-borne storm pummeled huge swaths of the state, and is expected to continue in coming days.

Read more:

If you missed it, here’s a look at how much damage atmospheric rivers — less studied meteorological phenomena than hurricanes — cause each year. [The New York Times]


  • Firefighters’ gear could be laden with toxic chemicals. In a first, they’re demanding testing. [The New York Times]

  • President Biden signed an array of sweeping climate actions, touching on drilling policy, international relations and employment, and elevating climate change across every level of federal government. [The New York Times]

  • Tesla reported being profitable last year — for the first time. [The New York Times]

  • GameStop shares have soared 1,700 percent, despite the fact that the retail video game business is not exactly booming. You may have heard about it. Here’s why it’s happening. [The New York Times]

  • The Oscars took place a little less than a year ago, on Feb. 9. They were one of the last normal public events before the pandemic. Whatever happens at the Dolby Theater on April 25 won’t be normal, but the Academy should look at it as an opportunity, A.O. Scott argues. [The New York Times]


California Today goes live at 6:30 a.m. Pacific time weekdays. Tell us what you want to see: [email protected]. Were you forwarded this email? Sign up for California Today here and read every edition online here.

Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.





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