… then where do we stop?
I’ve heard that, and variations, raised as both an objection intended to derail a conversation, and as an honest question. Here’s my answer.
True, schools are not the only places that bear Confederate names.
And true, plenty of schools (and other places) are named for people from our history who were less than perfect. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, and their names are engraved above plenty of doorways.
By asking that schools named for Confederate generals and officials change their names, we’re not asking for history to be erased. We cannot and should not erase it, but we should put that history in context.
We’re not telling people they need to be ashamed for what a relative born over a century ago did or didn’t do. We are, however, asking people to be responsible for what they themselves do today when it comes to addressing institutional racism.
Education and schools are central to this country’s struggle with race. Teaching slaves to read was against the law, and even in “free” states, educating Blacks was controversial:
Violent confrontations took place on schoolhouse steps, and children carried their parents’ messages of hate and fear to the streets:
People used the battle flag of the Confederate Army in protests against integrating schools.
Photo by Melissa Farlow, 1975, The Courier-Journal
Freedom schools, huelga schools—Blacks and Chicanos understood the meaning and value of education, and when not granted equal access, they created it for themselves.
Schools were the institutions of separate but equal. They were, and still are, given how we fund them so inadequately, the central institutions for institutionalized racism.
That’s why we have to start with schools.
We cannot worry that we won’t be able to change everything. We won’t, not all at once.
We do have to start, however, and schools are the place to do so. Racism is taught. It is a learned behavior. If we want to stop it, we should at the very least make the places we send children to learn as free from it as possible.
PS – Are there other changes we need to make? Yes. This is not a zero-sum game. Raising other issues in response to this issue derails this conversation. We are humans. We have multiple conversations all of the time. Your mother can love all of her children at the same time. I am not saying we ignore school funding or gun violence or any of the many other manifestations of institutional racism. I’m saying that changing school names is a key part of this work, so let’s do it now.