Editor’s note: Today’s editorials originally appeared in The (Tacoma) News Tribune. Editorial content from other publications is provided to give readers a sampling of regional and national opinion and does not necessarily reflect positions endorsed by the Editorial Board of The Daily News.
Racism should be given no quarter in American society today. It has no place in our language and customs. But in a country that was birthed in racial prejudice and nursed on it for nearly 200 years, shedding generations of slang terms, place names and symbols is no small housecleaning project.
In Washington, in the last year alone, geographic naming authorities have erased words such as Negro and Chinaman, plus several references to Coon and Squaw, from official state maps. And reasonable people have fought to strip offensive nicknames and mascots from schools and sports teams.
There’s nothing reasonable, however, about a decision by school officials in the Portland metro area to change the names of three schools this summer because of hypersensitivity to the word “Lynch.”
Cowardly is a better description for the Centennial School District board and superintendent, after they caved to pressure to rename Lynch Meadows, Lynch Wood and Lynch View elementary schools.
They were willing, even “comfortable,” to blot out the family name of the original land donors because it matches a verb that evokes the terrible racial violence of the abolition era.
Never mind that the Lynches who gave land 100 years ago aren’t associated with racist behavior. Never mind that the surname also belongs to eminent people ranging from Iraq War POW Jessica Lynch to African Americans such as former Attorney General Loretta Lynch, post Civil War-era congressman John Lynch and erstwhile Seattle Seahawk Marshawn Lynch.
It seems the school names had generated “an increasing amount of questions and some complaints from families of color,” Centennial Superintendent Paul Coakley told The Oregonian. It had created “a disruption for some students.”
When questions are viewed as disruptions by educators, it’s a sign that good sense has taken a leave of absence.
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Public schools are entrusted to teach children critical thinking skills. That includes recognizing the difference between words with multiple meanings and nuances — some derogatory, some mundane, some mere homonyms.
It’s a process known as discrimination, and students should be encouraged to practice it. (To be clear, we don’t mean the other kind of discrimination.)
Children need these skills so they don’t assume the kid across the lunch table is a bigot. They need it so that taking offense doesn’t become an unconscious reflex, like breathing or swallowing. The need it so they grow up to be enlightened adults.
Meanwhile, the name Mann might have to be purged from both an elementary school in Tacoma and a middle school in Lakewood for subconsciously promoting male-dominant society.
We exaggerate to make a point, but so did George Orwell in his dystopian novel “1984.” In one scene, a linguist explains the new edition of the ruling party’s dictionary and the compulsory language known as Newspeak.
“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words — scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone.”
Here’s a suggestion for our neighbors in Oregon: Rather than retiring an uncomfortable word from students’ vocabulary, give them a brief lesson about school history and the Lynches on the first day of class. Follow it with a session on the power of words, and the importance of context when using and interpreting them.
You might invite the school board and superintendent to sit in.