Treat the cause, not the symptoms

July 17, 2020 12:01 am

Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Hanover will get a new name. (NBC12)

Renaming schools and removing monuments is only the beginning; real change can come only by dismantling Virginia’s systems of racial inequity

This week, Hanover County School Board voted to rename Lee-Davis High School and Stonewall Jackson Middle school, joining a slew of school systems across the state choosing to remove from their campuses longstanding symbols and signals of confederate veneration.

As my 5- and 2-year old sons roughhoused on our living room floor like a pair of playful puppies, I settled my baby boy on my lap, muted my phone and tuned in to the school board’s Zoom meeting from the couch, one of a reported 1,860 people to do so. I’d wager that most folks were watching for the same reason I was: to witness whether our public school leaders would finally decide to do away with the racist school names that have come to define a part of Hanover’s identity

The clerk read 33, pre-submitted public comments; most of them urged the board to change the school names. When it came time for the vote, I was fully prepared for the board to ignore or reject the chorus of calls to change the names, like they have so many times before. Instead, I was shocked to hear a motion to change the names pass 4 to 3. 

In the midst of my excitement at the news, I realized that it was a pretty slim margin of victory for all of us who’ve been advocating for the school names to change. The three board members who voted to keep the racist names – school board chair John Axselle among them – represent nearly half of Hanover County’s school board leadership. If these leaders can’t even be counted on to give up their affinity for school monikers that represent Lost Cause mythology and a legacy of racism that demonstrably harms Black students, can they commit to the rigorous work of ensuring our schools are equitable learning environments for all students?

This chunk of board members help pilot Hanover’s education system, and they voted publicly to keep school names that perpetuate racism. As a Black parent to Black children, their actions say clearly to me, “We don’t care that these racist school names negatively impact African American students and parents. We don’t care that the school names create an unwelcoming environment for your children. We don’t care that a long, litigious battle to keep the racist school names would diminish resources meant to enhance the educational experience of Hanover students. We don’t care.”

In a time of continuous change, we must hold our leaders accountable for their words and deeds; they are supposed to serve their constituents, not outdated ideologies. They are supposed to care.

In Hanover, and elsewhere in the state, we still have much work to do. The conversation can’t stop at the renaming of the schools, because the school names represent the larger problem: ingrained systemic racism and racial injustice. We can’t settle for simply removing confederate monuments without excising the spirit of bigotry and intolerance they represent. Councils and committees that examine inequality in Virginia’s education, healthcare, housing, social and economic systems are meaningless without policy that eradicates it. Treat the cause, not the symptoms.

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Samantha Willis
Samantha Willis

Samantha Willis, a writer and journalist whose experience in digital, print and broadcast media spans 12 years, is Commentary and Deputy Editor at the Virginia Mercury. Her work has appeared in leading publications including Glamour Magazine, Essence Magazine, Scalawag Magazine, and the Columbia Journalism Review, and within a wide range of Virginia-based media.