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In a debate over the school's name, it's not just parents who are tied to the past

In a debate over the school's name, it's not just parents who are tied to the past


In 1951, William Faulkner wrote: “The past is never dead. It is not even the past.” It's a line that's been bouncing around in my head for the past week, ever since I read the news of a school district in Virginia that voted to turn back the clock. How? from renaming two schools named after Confederate generals. And what struck me the most when I read about the change was not that adults were arguing about names. It was the children.

In 2020, at the height of the nation's “racial reckoning,” two Shenandoah-area schools had initially changed their names in order to distance themselves from the legacy of racism those names represented. But within just a few years, the tide was turning back. So after a couple more years of debate, Mountain View High School will now again be Stonewall Jackson High School and Honey Run Elementary School will be Ashby-Lee Elementary School, after Turner Ashby and Robert E. Lee.

It's no big surprise to me that some of the older school graduates would have fought to get those names back. We've talked before Code switching about the idea that school symbols, mascots and names often end up developing a sort of mythical significance to the people who grew up with them. And this is not just the case for white people who are willing to entertain racist referents. My colleague, Gene Demby, has written about a predominantly black school district that quietly decided to keep his name that of a notorious slave owner. “We all undertake the difficult mental gymnastics of making room for ugly cultural objects when they are familiar, when our personal memories are wrapped up in them,” Gene wrote at the time.

[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt of Code Switch’s Up All Night newsletter. You can sign up here.]

But what about the new students involved? Turns out they were separate, just like adults, despite not having the same nostalgic associations with Stonewall and co. Some described the names of the Confederacy as hostile and inhospitable. But others wanted the old names back like an eighth grader who, as my colleague reported, told the county board“I'd like to have a name that I'm proud of… Not only do I want to have my own [Future Farmers of America] jacket says Stonewall as I enter high school, but I also wish my year-round jerseys said Stonewall.”

Which seems like a telling example of how things like pride can pass for better or worse.

It has become a cliché for parents to look at their young children and see a kind of purity and innocence. “My kids don't watch the race“, they will say. But decades and decades of research have suggested otherwise 6-month-old babies have already begun to distinguish between different racesand she by elementary school, children are aware of things like racial stereotypes and hierarchies. From high school, this is reflected in their friend groups. And as children grow up, their tastes, politics and beliefs are deeply shaped by their parents. Much is made of the generational differences of young people making up for the shortcomings of their parents. But a recent Pew research study found this out between 80 and 90 percent of teenagers share the same political beliefs as their parents. So, by some metrics, young people are much more likely to become their parents than to correct for them.

Which means that if children are our future, as that old saw goes, then my past will also be our future. Otherwise: If we *adults* want a better world, maybe we should stop fantasizing that the next generation will save us and do a little more work to save ourselves.

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