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Joey Grihalva, a MPS teacher, writer and author of “Milwaukee Jazz,” calls for the renaming of Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory High School.
Tonight, the nine members of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors will fire up their personal computers and zoom into a digital meeting.
It will be no ordinary meeting. On the contrary, it will be one of the most consequential meetings in history. They will decide — alongside MPS administration — how more than 70,000 students and nearly 10,000 employees will return to school amid a global pandemic that appears to be surging. They will be armed with the results of a districtwide survey of parents and educators. Odds are the meeting will run late into the night.
It is safe to say that there are bigger fish to fry at this school board meeting than renaming Ronald Reagan High School. Nor is it something that they can unilaterally do. But make no mistake, it is a cause the school community should take up. As the man himself once said, “I know it’s a hell of a challenge, but ask yourselves: If not us, who? If not now, when?”
The time is ripe to be on the right side of history. Symbols of oppression are falling all around us. Statues of slaveholders, segregationists and Confederate soldiers are being torn down. Princeton is renaming the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Mississippi is changing its flag. The Washington D.C. NFL franchise is getting rid of its name and logo. Congressional bills are calling for the renaming of federal facilities. There is real momentum for change.
By no means am I asserting that simply changing a school’s name will ensure equity and an educational experience free of oppression. Nor am I claiming that Reagan is the only MPS school that should be renamed. However, there are specific, instructive reasons why I believe the district should rename Reagan High School in this post-George Floyd era of American history.
George Floyd was a man. In life, his humanity imbued him with complexity. In death, George Floyd became a symbol. His death became a rallying cry for those who had witnessed enough lynchings of Black people at the hands of the police. His death, along with others fresh in the national consciousness, has sparked an awakening that has elevated the national conversation around policing and systemic oppression.
For once, it appears that a critical mass of Americans have moved beyond the “bad apples” view of police killings to an understanding that state-sanctioned brutality is deeply tied to racism, mass incarceration, segregation, housing discrimination, evictions, gentrification, divestment from social services, access to health care, education and the exploitation of the working class. There are genuine discussions happening on the national level about how to dismantle systems of white supremacy. These are encouraging times. As a public school district, we should do what we can to advance this conversation.
Across the nation, and in a nearby suburb, school districts are taking up the challenge of renaming schools after culpable historic figures. Slaveholders and segregationists are easy targets, but in order to keep the conversation focused on institutions and not individual actors, we should also consider those who advanced a covert racist agenda.
Ronald Reagan was a man. Before becoming a politician, he was an actor. Reagan may not have designed the myriad ways the government and private sector engages in systematic oppression of communities of color, but he employed them with brute force. Both in life and in death, Reagan became a symbol of institutional racism.
As Princeton professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in The New Yorker: “Reagan mastered the art of color-blind racism in the post-civil-rights era with his invocations of ‘welfare queens.’” Reagan took a War on Poverty and turned it into a war on the poor. Reagan’s policies not only hurt America’s communities of color, he eroded the social contract and created an economic environment that has widened income inequality, thereby hurting all working-class Americans.
These are the basics of Reagan’s legacy, which I became aware of well before George Floyd’s death. This is why I gave my mom a side-eye glance when she told me in 2009 that she was leaving her coaching position at my alma mater, Rufus King, to take over the girls soccer program at a relatively new school named after Reagan. She understands and sympathizes. While she is proud to represent the school staff and students, she would prefer to minimize the prominence of the word “Reagan” on their apparel and instead emphasize their mascot, the Huskies. However, if the majority of her players want the name front and center, she will respect that.
When my stepson was deciding which MPS high school to attend, Reagan’s name was one of a few factors that led him to decide against the school, despite its reputation for academic and artistic excellence. Therein lies the heart of the matter.
Over the past decade, Reagan has supplanted Rufus King as the preeminent non-charter MPS high school. While both offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, Reagan also has a career-related program for health science and computer science. By requiring IB Citizenship and offering IB Global Politics, Reagan’s social studies department seeks to foster not only gifted academics, but engaged citizens. Unlike King, Reagan offers film classes in its fine arts department. In addition, Reagan’s highly lauded music department has a focus on composition.
In what is often referred to as America’s most segregated city, Rufus King and Reagan could not be more geographically disparate. Not surprisingly, the demographics of each school reflect those of their respective sides of town. Both schools are predominantly made up of students of color, but whereas King is mostly Black students, Reagan is mostly Latinx.
Imagine a brilliant young Black student who lives on the North Side of Milwaukee. Inspired by their parents’ activism in the 1980s, the student aspires to study politics and become a filmmaker. Logically, Reagan is best suited for the student’s academic path. However, the student’s parents object wholeheartedly to their child attending a school bearing the name of Reagan, whose policies they passionately protested.
If we as a district are committed to integrating this city of ours, we should consider renaming Reagan as a part of those efforts.
If you are still unsure of Reagan’s legacy as a symbol of institutionalized racism, allow me to inform.
In the wake of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Lyndon Johnson’s administration passed anti-discrimination laws, created civil rights offices to enforce those laws and expanded the welfare state in an attempt to mitigate the widespread poverty plaguing communities of color.
In an attempt to understand the violent uprisings that accompanied the civil rights movement, Johnson also commissioned a report. The Kerner Commission, released in March 1968, found that institutional racism and poverty were driving inner-city violence. By the time Richard Nixon was elected president later that year, the report’s recommendations would be scrapped.
Nixon harnessed the racist backlash to civil rights, using covert racism to attract white working-class southerners to vote for the Republican Party. This is what is known as “the Southern strategy.” Reagan took the baton from Nixon and ran with it.
For example, the following quote is from Reagan’s campaign manager Lee Atwater, speaking off the record in 1981.
“You start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger, that hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced-busing, state’s rights and all that stuff. And so you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes. All of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and the by-product of them is Blacks get hurt worse than whites.”
In 1980, shortly after accepting the Republican nomination for president, Reagan held a rally at a county fair in Mississippi. He gave a speech about state’s rights. Some say he was appealing to white southerners who opposed integration efforts by the federal government. Others say it was simply a reflection of his libertarian economic beliefs. Well, it just so happens that this specific county in Mississippi is where three civil rights workers were abducted and murdered in the summer of 1964. Coincidence?
In his crusade to rein in the federal government, Reagan shuttered civil rights offices around the country. As The New York Times Magazine’s The 1619 Project points out, since emancipation, Black farmers have faced untold discrimination. In fact, the largest civil rights settlement in American history was the result of a class action lawsuit by Black farmers against the United States Department of Agriculture for discrimination that took place between 1983 and 1997. During that time, if a Black farmer was discriminated against and filed a complaint, there was no longer an office to process it, thanks to the Reagan administration.
As Taylor writes in her 2016 book “From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation,” Reagan’s “budget cuts, which shredded the already frayed American welfare state, included: a 17 percent cut in unemployment insurance; a 13 percent reduction in food stamps, making a million people ineligible; a 14 percent reduction in cash benefits through Aid to Dependent Families with Children, resulting in 410,000 being dropped from the rolls and 259,000 families’ benefits being reduced; increasing Medicare deductibles while cutting Medicaid by 3 percent and tightening eligibility standards; simply eliminating 300,000 jobs financed through federal jobs program —overwhelmingly affecting Black workers; and raising rent by 5 percent in federally subsidized housing units.”
Additionally, “In 1982, $560 million was cut from the federal school lunch program, which subsidized meals for public school children. As a result, 590,000 children were dropped from the program. When Reagan could not get away with eliminating food for children altogether, he eliminated as much as he could from their plates by authorizing reduced portions, allowing the use of meat substitutes, and — infamously — classifying ketchup as a vegetable — all while raising the price of lunch by 20 cents.”
Most disastrously, Reagan took Nixon’s nascent War on Drugs — an issue that experts agree should be treated as a public health crisis rather than a law enforcement crusade — and turned it into an actual armed conflict. Reagan militarized the American police force, which has used the War on Drugs as a pretext for terrorizing communities of color.
This is the legacy that has led us to this moment, in which we have watched enough Black people be murdered by police, only for the police not to be held accountable. And we are waking up to the way in which this is part of a larger American story.
Hurdles for a new name
Taking up a challenge like this in Wisconsin’s largest school district will inevitably run into political, bureaucratic and philosophical hurdles. There will be those who say you can’t pick and choose which schools to rename. There will be those who say, “But what about the alumni?” There will be those who say that if you change one, you have to change them all. The web will spin and spin until it is impossible to move through.
First and foremost, I have to acknowledge that there is protocol for changing a school’s name. To my understanding, the principal and staff need to be on board, parents and students need to be surveyed, and the community needs to give input. Then it needs to be presented to the school board for approval. I am not necessarily advocating for the school board to ignore protocol, but I am saying that they should initiate the process.
This is an issue that I have thought about long before our current political moment. What always stopped me from putting these ideas into the public sphere was that I had yet to see a student-led effort to rename the school. However, upon speaking with Reagan staff and parents, I have learned that there have been and are students who feel strongly about changing the name, but it never rose to the top of their priority list and they never organized around it. Understandably, they were bogged down by their schoolwork, extracurriculars, and social lives. Nevertheless, the desire exists.
If the school were to be renamed, or if a districtwide renaming project took place, there are many different ways in which it could go. Some suggest a simple number, like New York City’s elementary schools. Some suggest naming them after neighborhoods, like Bay View High School or the recently renamed Riverwest School. Some suggest positive words like “Hope” or “Joy.” Some suggest local historic figures.
As it turns out, Reagan High School actually occupies the former Christopher Latham Sholes Middle School, and weirdly, still bears the Sholes name, which would make it relatively easy to switch back. Sholes was a local newspaper publisher, politician, and the inventor of the QWERTY keyboard. He opposed the expansion of slavery and helped abolish capital punishment in Wisconsin. Already, he’s off to a better start than Reagan. But Sholes died in 1890, making it considerably harder to judge his character.
The difficulty with historic figures is creating the criteria by which they are judged. As lauded as she may be, Golda Meir was prime minister of Israel shortly after the country seized the Golan Heights from Syria and she oversaw the Yom Kippur War in 1973. As beloved as Barack Obama may be, and in many respects, he is deservedly so, he still oversaw drone strikes that killed innocent women and children in the Middle East. As far as I can tell, Rufus King was a good guy, but it doesn’t appear that the abolition of slavery was one of his top concerns. Obviously, nobody is perfect. I am not saying that these three figures should not have an MPS school named after them. I’m saying that it is easy to get mired down in creating the criteria for who is worthy. I am also saying that because Reagan is a symbol of systemic racism, he is not worthy.
There will also be those who say it costs money to rename a public facility and there isn’t room in the budget. Well, to that unfortunately common refrain, I defer once again to the wisdom of Taylor.
“When it comes to schools, housing, food and other basic necessities, politicians always complain about deficits and the need to curb spending and curb budgets. [But] when billions are spent on war, police-brutality settlements and publicly subsidized sports stadiums, there never seems to be a shortage of money.”
Policy matters more
Having said all of that, I must make it crystal clear that a symbolic gesture in support of equity and antiracism, like changing a school’s name or painting “BLACK LIVES MATTER” on the street, is not worth much unless we are also committed to substantive policy changes and increased funding for social services.
Do not be like the mayor of Washington D.C., who had “BLACK LIVES MATTER” painted on a street leading to the White House, but then increased the police budget by $45 million.
MPS has already made strides toward equity with the Office for Civil Rights and ethnic studies initiatives. Let us do more. Let us take the baton from this moment in history and run with it. Let us not be performative. Let us be transformative.