White fragility and the fight over Marin County’s Dixie School District

North of San Francisco, a well-heeled community has its privilege tested.

 

A Civil Conversation is a new, ongoing series exploring the experiences of African-Americans in the West, in an effort to create more informed public dialog on issues of race and racism.

Nestled in the foothills north of San Francisco Bay, across the Golden Gate Bridge, lies Marin County. With thousands of acres of rolling open space, expensive homes and a reputation for liberal politics, Marin seems a very long way from the Old South, both geographically and historically. Yet for three decades now, it has been roiled by a war of words over the name of its school district — Dixie.

Through letters to the editor, at times nasty social media exchanges and occasional public forums, the battle has split the almost all-white citizenry into two camps: The name-changers, who see the word “Dixie” as a painful reminder of the Confederacy, the pro-slavery South and the past century and a half of racial discrimination and violence against African-Americans; and the name-keepers, who argue that the name has historical significance and that the name-changers are merely grasping at political correctness.

A bus waits in the Dixie Elementary School parking lot in San Rafael, California, where a fight is underway over the Dixie School District’s name.
Mason Trinca for The Washington Post via Getty Images

It all came to a head on Feb. 12, when the five-member school board voted down 13 alternative names and punted a final decision somewhere down the road. A crowd of 300 people packed the hearing in San Rafael, including the Rev. Amos Brown, an acolyte of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and himself a venerated civil rights icon. After the board voted, Brown led an off-key rendition of “We Shall Not Be Moved” in protest of the non-decision decision.

Still, some name-changers saw progress. Several of the board members said that they favored a change but wanted a more public process. The board promised to revisit the issue at its next meeting.

But when I asked Kerry Peirson, the African-American who started the effort 22 years ago, what he thought, he paused, searching for the right words. “Going into the meeting, I was optimistic. But last night, my heart kind of got squished.”  

At a time when symbols of the Confederacy are coming down in communities across the country, why has it been so hard to change the name of a school district in one of California’s most progressive counties? And does it even matter? I went to Marin County last fall to find out.

THERE I MET PEIRSON, who told me how he had gotten into this fight. Peirson grew up in the Bay Area and moved back home in 1982 after serving in the military, then earning a degree in journalism from Howard University. Fifteen years later, while perusing job ads, he read an article about a local soccer team called the Dixie Stompers. For Peirson, the name immediately conjured up those infamous 1960s images of Sheriff Bull Connor attacking civil rights activists with clubs, dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama.

Curious, Peirson found out that the team came from a northern Marin County school district named Dixie. After digging a little deeper, he discovered that, although the state of California mostly supported the Union during the Civil War, Marin County — or at least a portion of it — had been pro-Confederacy. Voting records from the 1860 and 1864 presidential elections confirm that some Marin precincts leaned Democratic — the pro-slavery party at the time — and voted against Abraham Lincoln.

Kerry Peirson, who has been fighting to change the name of Marin County’s Dixie School District for more than 20 years.

Peirson started making a public issue of the name, writing articles and opinion pieces for the Marin Independent Journal. In response, the school board hosted a public discussion in 1997. Peirson remembers that he was the only African-American to attend that meeting, and that the conversation was heated. Someone referred to him as “a primate” and told him to “Go back where you came from.” But Peirson kept writing letters, kept talking to people, and along the way he found some allies.

In 2003, school board member Karen Crockett asked the school board to hold another public discussion and vote on changing the name. But the measure failed. Fourteen years later, in 2018, Marnie Glickman, a newly elected school board member, gave new energy and organizational skills to the apparently dormant cause. A Jewish lawyer who served as an adviser to the Green Party presidential campaigns of both Ralph Nader and Jill Stein, and who protested at Ferguson, Missouri, and Standing Rock, North Dakota, she chose her words carefully over a cup of tea. “Dixie is a symbol of the Confederacy,” she said. “It hurts people. Words matter. History matters. This is a clear moral obligation.”

I IMMEDIATELY LIKED PAUL BRUNELL, one of the prominent supporters of retaining the current district name. An IT professional who combines his love of adventure travel and amateur photography with his enthusiasm for the outdoors, Brunell introduced me to the joys of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown TV series. He moved to Marin 20 years ago from Washington, D.C., an area whose human diversity he embraced. In college, at Texas A&M, Brunell told me he was shocked and dismayed by the overt racism he saw. He once confronted a bus driver over his racist remarks.

Brunell pointed out that in Marin, the word “Dixie” has a 155-year positive connotation. He noted that Dixie is one of the top districts in the state, something mentioned by many of the name-keepers. The name-keepers have also gathered evidence that the name actually honors Mary Dixie, a Miwok Indian woman with a white name whose family likely worked for James Miller, the original superintendent. A prominent local real estate agent discovered that across the country, some 7,800 African-Americans have the first name “Dixie” — proof, apparently, that it isn’t offensive.

Brunell described Marin County as “very tolerant and inclusive,” a sentiment I heard often. But if it’s so inclusive, why is less than 3 percent of the county’s population African-American, while 86 percent of it is white? And why does the California nonprofit Racecounts.org, a project that measures how well people in a given county in the state are doing by race, conclude that in seven out of seven categories — housing, economic opportunity, health care access, education, democracy, crime and justice, and a healthy built environment — Marin ranks lowest in the state for African-Americans?

The name-keepers say what those who refuse to tear down a flag or a monument always seem to say, “Where will it end?” Brunell told me, “This is just about political correctness.”

“WHITE PRIVILEGE” HAS BECOME A COMMON TERM. But about a year ago, while interviewing a woman in Denver, I heard the term “white fragility” for the first time. I knew instantly what it meant, because I’ve danced to that tune many times. When I’m talking to a white person about race, I’m endlessly careful not to hurt their feelings, not to make them feel defensive or think I’m trying to “guilt” them into agreeing with me. Years ago, while I was talking with a friend about civil rights, he remarked, “I hope you give credit to all the white people who fought for civil rights!” I do. I also wanted to respond, “But the fight for civil rights would not have been necessary if it weren’t for white people.” But I held my tongue. White fragility in action. It makes even writing this series a delicate dance with words.

Dixie School District parents gather in January at the home of name-change proponent and Dixie School Board trustee Marnie Glickman Curtis to talk about their and their childrens’ experiences living in a predominately white community.
Mason Trinca for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Marin name-keepers are quite fragile. When confronted by African-Americans, they respond as if only they can determine what should and should not be uncomfortable to others. Any deviation from the view and experience of the dominant culture is simply not valid. One name-keeper, unable to conceive that one of the name-changers is sincere in his viewpoint, wrote in a recent social media post, “He’s just interested in landing a documentary film deal!”

But as Noah Griffin, the African-American against whom that charge was leveled, sees it, “For animals who live in the water, when they look up and see animals who live on land, any thought that the land creatures don’t have gills is unimaginable. They can only see the world through the only thing that they’ve known their entire existence. … gills.”

In her 2017 book, Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People about Race, Reni Eddo-Lodge writes: “They’ve never had to think about what it means in power terms, to be white, so any time they’re vaguely reminded of this fact, they interpret it as an affront. You see their eyes shut down and harden. They’re itching to talk over you but not really listen, because they need to let you know that you’ve got it wrong.”

White privilege is the rigid underpinning of the controversy over Colin Kaepernick and the national anthem … the Confederate monuments controversy … the Andrew Jackson slave trader versus Harriet Tubman slave freedom fighter’s picture on the $20 bill. The Washington Redskins name fight. News personality Megyn Kelly’s “Sorry, kids, but Santa Claus is white. And so is Jesus for that matter. That’s just the way it is.” It’s simply beyond her comprehension to imagine pivotal figures like these as brown, much less black. White fragility makes it challenging to call out white privilege. So the discussion goes on, and goes nowhere.

AND LIBERALS ARE NOT IMMUNE. Morehouse College president and civil rights icon Benjamin May said in his 1967 Commencement Address: “Discrimination in the future will not be administered by poor whites and those who believe in segregation, but by ‘liberals’ who believe in a desegregated society, but not an integrated society. The Negroes’ battle for justice and equality in the future will not be against the Wallaces, the Barnettes, and the Maddoxes, but against the subtlety of our ‘liberal friends’ who will wine and dine with us in the swankiest hotels, work with us, and still discriminate against us when it comes to money and power.”

The real estate agent I spoke with in Marin County told me that even though she says she’d be fine with a name change, she is opposed to agitators “with their own agenda.” And Paul Brunnell, after the vote, told me, “If the name changes, so be it. But it can’t happen this way, with all the drama, animosity, name-calling, and histrionics from those advocating for change.” I wish they would both talk with — and actually listen to — another woman I met there, Ruby Wilson.

Ruby Wilson moved to northern Marin County from her home in Philadelphia in 1971 to join her husband, Henry, who had moved out a few months earlier to start his new job as a hospital administrator. But she was born and raised in South Carolina, where her great-grandfather had been a slave. Ruby Wilson remembers a close-knit, happy childhood. But she also remembers the reality of the Old South, which was reinforced by the Jim Crow laws that compelled her to step off sidewalks to let white people pass … and never to look them in the eye. Water fountains and restrooms. Movie theaters and restaurants. She remembers a police force that enforced the rules and the feelings of terror and humiliation that never went away. For her, “Dixie” has only one meaning.

When Wilson, who is a former Marin County schoolteacher, heard about the Feb. 12 vote, she told me she wasn’t surprised. And she doubts that a broader public process will change the outcome. “If it’s put to a vote, my sense is the community will vote to keep the name. This is silly. Names change all the time. Children in the district do well because parents are involved, not because of the name of the district.”

ADMITTEDLY, A SCHOOL NAME IS NOT A HUGE ISSUE. But it is one more thing that African-Americans have to silently will themselves to just ignore. “Let it go.” It’s like when we notice the person at the checkout counter doesn’t greet us as jovially as she greeted the three people ahead of us. “Just ignore her. Be nice. Let it go.” This constant sense of oppression helps answer the question, “Why aren’t African-Americans further ahead?” Because in a thousand small and not-so-small ways, life is harder.

The citizens of Marin missed an opportunity to join their African-American neighbors and make life just a little easier. They could have demonstrated that their community is as welcoming and tolerant as so many people claim. It could still happen.

But even if the name-changers are ultimately victorious, will this fight make the community better? What lessons will have been learned? Will it mark the end of an uncivil debate or the beginning of civil dialogue? In today’s climate of intolerance, encouraged and even modeled by powerful politicians, there aren’t too many opportunities to have “Ah-ha!” moments. Marin County still has a chance to reach across the divide and show the rest of the country how it’s done.  

Note: This article has been updated to correct the year Marnie Glickman began advocating for the name change from 2017 to 2018.

Wayne Hare is a member of the High Country News board who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado. Email HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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