I have a 7-year-old who just finished her second year at Jefferson Elementary. And I’m a parent who has been wholly uninvolved in matters concerning the school’s proposed name change (from Jefferson to Sequoia) and in its ensuing controversy; uninvolved that is, until now.
My first act was only to attend the public hearing and meeting when the matter was put to a vote by the School Board. As is now public record, the vote went against the proposed change. I admit favoring a change. But my motivation for attending these deliberations was not to influence the outcome, but only to observe the process.
I was curious about this process because part of our community feels disenfranchised by a school that bears a name linked to slavery. I, on the other hand, am a middle-aged white man; I don’t have that feeling. And I recognize that I may never fully understand why retaining the name Jefferson invokes this feeling among some of my neighbors. But I can guess that the reasons are numerous and complex. So, I was drawn to the hearing and to the board meeting that followed because it occurred to me (finally) that concerns of disenfranchisement need to be addressed by the entire community.
At the public hearing, those from one camp spoke of Jefferson’s greatness, even offering apologia for the beastly sides of his legacy. This constituency agreed that to change the school’s name would be to dishonor the memory of a Founding Father. But no one from this side spoke constructively about those members of our community who see Jefferson as a symbol of oppression (though one speaker callously labeled these community members a “special interest”).
So, when the board finally weighed in, I was stunned that this level of discourse generally continued. Let me illustrate the disappointingly muddled rationales offered by some board members to justify their votes.
Board President Riddle furnished a rather suspect argument. She announced that her rejection of the name change serves the democratic process. President Riddle, you see, claims to have surveyed the community at large. The responses according to Riddle ranged from complete apathy to strong opposition to change. Evidently none of those surveyed favored a name change. This outcome seems odd, given that the actual vote of the school community approved the change. Riddle’s survey is curious indeed—and unverifiable to boot.
Director Issel’s rationale seemed the most gutless. Her stated reason for voting no: The idea is too divisive. I thought everyone knew that race-related issues are divisive. Even Lyndon Johnson (no paradigm of virtue himself) predicted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would cost Democrats the south for the next 40 years. But Johnson still championed the Act. Ms. Issel, on the other hand, is a coward.
Finally, it was Director Rivera who distinguished himself in my eyes. His comments struck me as not just baseless, but downright mean. One of his admonishments went as follows: The misplaced energy spent on pursuing name change was a distraction that may have contributed to achievement gaps that plague Jefferson School. His message is clear: Not only are the concerns expressed by those favoring change not to be embraced, they are to be recognized as destructive. Here’s why that mean-spirited message is baseless: Rivera furnished statistics that point to the school’s achievement gaps, but conspicuously offered no evidence linking those statistics to the proposed name change. Had Rivera instead been arguing in favor of change, he could have just as easily asserted that the achievement gaps are caused by the intimidating name of Jefferson (and not the process of changing that name).
Rivera went on to characterize the debate as “all this [divisiveness] over a man who owned slaves.” This, he told us, is what bothers him about some Berkeley progressives; their thinking is too simplistic, he claimed.
But who’s really the simpleton here? I thought this debate centered around a man whose body of work includes acts that buoyed slavery’s position in society; about drafting portions of the constitution like the three-fifths clause and Articles I and V that safeguarded slavery’s place until igniting the Civil War 80-some years later; about establishing the University of Virginia to turn out educated defenders of slavery and to counter abolitionist bastions like Harvard and Yale; and about the moral hypocrisy of writing copiously on the evils of race-mixing while fathering children from at least one slave. So, Mr. Rivera, do you really think all this is just about a man who owned some slaves?
Ultimately, Rivera’s stated reason for his vote was that the name change doesn’t make “rational sense” to him. This may be so. But Mr. Rivera’s rationality is based on an ignorance of both the rules of logic and the facts of history. I’m just not convinced that what makes sense to him, makes sense to thinking adults. (There’s a bit of mean-spiritedness back at ya‚ Rivera. Oh, and one more thing: You’re a bully!)
In the end, School Board members may have the authority to deny the name change. So be it. But the community is entitled to justifications for this negative decision that are reasoned and defensible. Such have yet to be furnished by the board. Without legitimate justification, the process can only be viewed as corrupt. And corruption within our schools’ leadership is of concern to us all.
The burden now falls squarely on the board to revisit this matter; to remedy their flawed deliberations; and to render a decision that can be supported by rational argument. Should any members be unwilling or unable to do this, then the community should respond: Let’s vote them out so that we can work with a thoughtful and enlightened board.
Michael Cassidy is a professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Berkeley.