It’s fine to highlight other people. But don’t cite historical falsehoods when you do.

See updates through April 7, 2021, at end of post.


On January 30, 2021, my mother sent me an article about a controversy over the San Francisco Board of Education deciding to rename some schools due to white supremacist associations, including that of my old high school, George Washington, which I never actually graduated from, and Abraham Lincoln.[1] I read the article and replied that yeah, I’d heard of the controversy and that San Francisco was grappling with the fact this country has been fascist from its beginning.[2]

Understand that I’m kind of annoyed by all of this stuff. I absolutely hated my time in primary and secondary education. I took California’s Proficiency Examination as soon as I could, passed, and left high school a year early, just in time for my mother and I to move to Sacramento, where I started at community college. My education prior to college was about the trauma of bullying from classmates, physical education classes that I thought reflected some weird sexual perversion of P.E. teachers who liked to watch teenagers run around a track, and other classes I really didn’t want to be in. This was not an education I got a whole lot out of and it’s something I’d really rather not remember.

Then I saw Josh Barro’s tweet and rolled my eyes figuring he was doing the neoconservative mainstream media thing that discredits mainstream journalists in the eyes of so many on the Left.[3] Then I saw the tweet again and noticed that he was tweeting an article from the New Yorker,[4] a publication I subscribe to. Which raises the question of whether I want to continue to subscribe to the New Yorker. So I gritted my teeth and read the article.

My subscription to the New Yorker is safe for now.

The school renaming controversy follows another controversy in 2019 over a mural over the entrance stairway, which when I was there, students were discouraged from using, at George Washington High School that depicted some unsavory elements of George Washington’s life. Ultimately, the Board of Education decided to cover up rather than destroy the mural.[5] I supported that decision because of my own experience with being bullied and my empathy for kids who might indeed find the mural traumatizing, but at the same time I didn’t want the mural destroyed because it had been subversively intended to point out those unsavory aspects.[6]

This decision to rename schools is more problematic, citing incorrect history and in fact discounting historians because, as the president of the Board of Education, Gabriela López, explains it, sort of, they want to highlight other voices.[7] I’m fine with deciding to highlight other people. As Howard Zinn noted, there is a problem with bias in the perspective from which U.S. history is typically taught and a real need to challenge that bias, as he did with A People’s History of the United States.[8]

But a school system, of all institutions, should absolutely not rationalize such a decision using historical falsehoods. And the school board president should not abuse the English language in an evasive and obscurantist fashion—Barro called this “word salad”—to belittle anyone challenging this decision, making them feel intellectually inferior and somehow racist or misogynist. This is an abuse of her position and I cannot condemn it strongly enough.


Update, February 21, 2021: The San Francisco Board of Education is backing down from its decision to rename schools and will focus on reopening schools instead.[9] I criticized the renaming decision in a recent blog post,[10] but I was far from alone.[11]


Update, April 7, 2021: The San Francisco Unified School District has officially suspended[12] its decision to rename schools that was, in many cases, based on historical inaacuracies,[13] after earlier having ‘paused’ it and promising to, you know, maybe actually listen to historians in the future.[14]

The episode remains troubling and not just because it made the district a caricature for right-wing attacks,[15] but because it reflects a self-righteousness that outweighed attention to detail and accuracy. Such would be troubling in any context, but is especially so in institutions tasked with instructing the young.[16]

It came on the heels of a decision to cover up a mural at my old high school that in fact depicted George Washington in an unflattering light, but was being interpreted as oppressive for its depiction of oppression,[17] a decision I regret but am compelled to support.[18]

The district also attracted attention when old tweets from its then-vice president came to light that singled out Asian-Amerikkkans for charges of racism against Blacks,[19] but this to me reveals a citywide political establishment bent on denying its own racism, whether systemic or otherwise.[20]

  1. [1]Fernando Martinez, “San Francisco school board considers renaming a school after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia,” SFGate, January 29, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/sf-culture/article/San-Francisco-School-Board-considers-renaming-a-15909103.php
  2. [2]David Benfell, “A simple definition of fascism,” Not Housebroken, July 7, 2020, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/07/06/a-simple-definition-of-fascism/
  3. [3]David Benfell, “The media and the Left,” Not Housebroken, February 1, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/01/25/the-media-and-the-left/
  4. [4]Isaac Chotiner, “How San Francisco Renamed Its Schools,” New Yorker, February 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-san-francisco-renamed-its-schools
  5. [5]Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board May Save Controversial George Washington Mural,” New York Times, August 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/arts/san-francisco-murals.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html
  6. [6]David Benfell, “A non-conformist mural and a non-conformist kid: Why the mural still must be covered up,” Not Housebroken, August 14, 2019, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/14/a-non-conformist-mural-and-a-non-conformist-kid-why-the-mural-still-must-be-covered-up/
  7. [7]Isaac Chotiner, “How San Francisco Renamed Its Schools,” New Yorker, February 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-san-francisco-renamed-its-schools
  8. [8]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York: HarperPerennial, 2003).
  9. [9]Greg Keraghosian, “SF school board pauses renaming 44 schools, promises to consult historians in future,” SFGate, February 21, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/SF-school-board-pauses-renaming-44-schools-15968504.php
  10. [10]David Benfell, “It’s fine to highlight other people. But don’t cite historical falsehoods when you do,” Not Housebroken, February 6, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/02/06/its-fine-to-highlight-other-people-but-dont-cite-historical-falsehoods-when-you-do/
  11. [11]Isaac Chotiner, “How San Francisco Renamed Its Schools,” New Yorker, February 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-san-francisco-renamed-its-schools; Greg Keraghosian, “SF school board pauses renaming 44 schools, promises to consult historians in future,” SFGate, February 21, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/SF-school-board-pauses-renaming-44-schools-15968504.php
  12. [12]Faith E. Pinho, “San Francisco board halts renaming of public schools after months of furor and debate,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-04-06/san-francisco-school-board-suspends-renaming-public-schools
  13. [13]Isaac Chotiner, “How San Francisco Renamed Its Schools,” New Yorker, February 6, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-san-francisco-renamed-its-schools; Fernando Martinez, “San Francisco school board considers renaming a school after the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia,” SFGate, January 29, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/sf-culture/article/San-Francisco-School-Board-considers-renaming-a-15909103.php
  14. [14]Greg Keraghosian, “SF school board pauses renaming 44 schools, promises to consult historians in future,” SFGate, February 21, 2021, https://www.sfgate.com/local/article/SF-school-board-pauses-renaming-44-schools-15968504.php
  15. [15]Faith E. Pinho, “San Francisco board halts renaming of public schools after months of furor and debate,” Los Angeles Times, April 6, 2021, https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2021-04-06/san-francisco-school-board-suspends-renaming-public-schools
  16. [16]David Benfell, “It’s fine to highlight other people. But don’t cite historical falsehoods when you do,” Not Housebroken, February 21, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/02/06/its-fine-to-highlight-other-people-but-dont-cite-historical-falsehoods-when-you-do/
  17. [17]Karin Klein, “At first, it looked like censorship. But covering up controversial mural makes sense,” Sacramento Bee, July 20, 2019, https://www.sacbee.com/opinion/california-forum/article232846267.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board May Save Controversial George Washington Mural,” New York Times, August 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/10/arts/san-francisco-murals.html; Carol Pogash, “San Francisco School Board Votes to Hide, but Not Destroy, Disputed Murals,” New York Times, August 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/14/arts/san-francisco-murals-george-washington.html
  18. [18]David Benfell, “A non-conformist mural and a non-conformist kid: Why the mural still must be covered up,” Not Housebroken, April 14, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2019/08/14/a-non-conformist-mural-and-a-non-conformist-kid-why-the-mural-still-must-be-covered-up/
  19. [19]Jill Tucker, “Mayor Breed calls for S.F. school board member to resign over racist tweets directed at Asian Americans,” San Francisco Chronicle, March 21, 2021, https://www.sfchronicle.com/education/article/Mayor-Breed-calls-for-S-F-school-board-member-to-16040970.php
  20. [20]David Benfell, “San Francisco’s political establishment doth protest too much,” Not Housebroken, March 22, 2021, https://disunitedstates.org/2021/03/22/san-franciscos-political-establishment-doth-protest-too-much/

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