Two former schoolmates and I recently published an open letter to the Berkeley school board (BUSD), along with a historical account of our elementary school’s 2005 democratic process to change our name from “Jefferson Elementary.”1 After two years of hard work by adults in the community, who wanted to create a more anti-racist learning environment for us, the school community voted to change our name to “Sequoia,” only to have our decision nullified and denounced by the Berkeley school board.
After the resurgence of Black Lives Matter earlier this summer, BUSD has decided to de-name both Jefferson and Washington Elementary as part of a broader BLM resolution, as both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson became immensely wealthy as active participants in chattel slavery. It is good, of course, that BUSD now recognizes that schools should not be named after slave-holders, but they are in the process of renaming Jefferson all over again. Their approach to renaming Jefferson overlooks the school’s specific history. It overlooks the fact that the name “Jefferson” is racist not only because of who Thomas Jefferson was, but also because if not for racist action by the school board, the school’s name would have been changed to Sequoia fifteen years ago.
So why do I care? Why focus on names, when we could focus on racist funding allocation and the achievement gap? School board member Ka’Dijah Brown, who sponsored the resolution, has repeatedly expressed worry that the conversation about the names will overshadow other anti-racist action, as well as frustration “that the same level of passion and concern is not given to the other issues that plague our district and cause our district to perpetuate the school to prison pipeline and perpetuate school pushouts.”2 I sympathize with this point of view, but people can and do care about multiple issues at once, and the picture of fighting racism as a zero-sum game where focus on one issue necessarily detracts from another is incomplete. Certainly, sometimes energy can be misdirected, but symbols can also act as a rallying point for more robust and concrete change. The focus on the schools’ names does not detract from other issues, but adds momentum to them.
Plus, symbols are important. When I started working on the open letter, I was of the mind that I didn’t care intrinsically about the name. I cared about recognition of racism within Berkeley’s recent past: We need to do more than acknowledge the racism inherent to our country’s founding. We need to do the harder and more important work of examining and rooting out racism from within our own community’s past. The school board needs to address what happened in 2005, and this conversation about the name was a tool to make that happen. Caring intrinsically about names feels irrational. Arguing over the meaning of a name should be rationally resolved by mutual recognition that the name means different things to different people, and the real questions are about the concrete injustices of racism. But this outlook is naive. Our minds are deeply linguistic, and becoming better, more compassionate, more intelligent people means interrogating what words and names and symbols mean to us.
Physical systems behave according to the principle of symmetry. That is, the same mechanisms acting in separate and similar situations lead to similar outcomes. Seemingly benign symbols of racism come from and perpetuate the psychological and social systems that enact racist laws and stochastically spit out white supremacist terrorists. Concrete injustices of racism are hard to tackle. They’re emotionally exhausting. I don’t enjoy thinking about the countless Black people who have been murdered by the police. Symbols of racism are much less heavy; and by examining symbols of racism, we indirectly examine concrete racism. By rooting out the aspects of our culture that venerate white supremacist symbols, we indirectly root out white supremacy.
How to help:
If you have a connection to Jefferson Elementary, or to Berkeley in general, you can support our cause by sending our letter to the School Board along with a statement of agreement, as more voices will make them more likely to act on our demands:
Subject line: Recognize Sequoia & Inform the Community.
Message: I was a student who voted in Jefferson Elementary’s 2005 name change election and agree that our legitimate vote for “Sequoia” should be honored. I urge the BUSD to meet my community’s demands: https://tinyurl.com/y268rzwj
(If you weren’t a student in 2005, but you still want to support the cause, send something similar.)
And send this information on to people you know who went to Jefferson, or someone else you think would support the cause.
- Thomas Jefferson became immensely wealthy as an active participant in chattel slavery, and wrote extensively about the subservient place of Black people in society and the lesser capability of the Black mind: “…never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; …it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to whites; In reason much inferior… and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless and anomalous” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787)