Unintentional racism exists not because its culprits are mean or racist, but because it’s built into the fabric of American society.
On April 26, around 150 of the more than 1,800 students from Hopkins High School — a suburban Minneapolis public school — staged a walkout to protest unfair treatment of minority students. Specifically, the students said they were protesting a culturally insensitive learning environment, including what they termed excessive suspensions of black and Latino students.
One example fresh in the minds of the students was an incident in February of 2013. The nordic ski team at Hopkins had an away meet over Presidents Day weekend. In the name of school spirit, members of the mostly white ski team dressed up in what they called “ghetto” or “rapper” attire.
Chad Gannis, 17, is a senior at Hopkins. He says some of the students dressed up in long jean shorts, and one kid wore a long fur coat.
When a pair of black students learned of the ski team’s decision to parody urban African-American culture, they lodged a complaint with the administration, saying they felt that the clothing choices were racist and disrespectful to the small minority of black students at the school.
The school administration reportedly told the students who filed a complaint that it was too late in the day to do anything about the team’s attire, so two black students decided to protest the event. The students placed posters around the school — without first getting approval from the administration — and the school officials took them down.
Upset, the students went to the assistant principal’s office to collect their posters and try to get permission to repost them. The assistant principal called the police and according to a police report, one of the students put his hand on the chest of the police officer to move around him while leaving the office with the posters.
Despite testimony from multiple students that no one placed their hand on an officer, two students were arrested, charged, expelled from school for three days and fined. The white students were brought into the office, but after expressing their remorse for their arguably offensive attire, were not reprimanded in any way — at least that’s the version many students have shared.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Malika Mousa, a junior who helped lead the protest, said.
During the walkout, many students chanted “What do we want?” “Equality!” “When do we want it?” “Now!”
Intentional or not, racism is not just a phenomenon happening at one school in one city. A study from 1990 found that even in the progressively liberal, white-majority community of Eugene, Ore., racism is on the rise due to increased frequency of racial jokes and slurs, derogatory racial stereotyping, and violent acts that often go unpunished by school authorities.
Specifically, unintentional racism has become an epidemic in the U.S., not just in schools, but in the fabric of our society, including the criminal justice system and media according to Jarrod Schwartz, executive director of Just Communities (JUST) — a nonprofit based in Santa Barbara dedicated to dismantling institutional racism in schools.
Schwartz said some people are surprised racism still goes on, particularly white students, parents and educators. “People of color don’t ask that question,” he said, explaining that they often see racism play out in their daily lives such as at schools, interactions with police, politicians, and in the media. “It’s just something that is a regular part of their lives.”
He stressed that when talking about racism in schools, it’s important to note that unintentional racism exists not because a mean individual doesn’t like Latinos or African Americans, but because it’s built into the fabric of American society.
The walkout was not the first time school administrators at Hopkins have been accused of racism. Though the student body population is comprised of 67 percent white, 22 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic, 5 percent Asian and 4 percent American Indian, superintendent for Hopkins Public Schools John W. Schultz, Ph. D., says with 47 different languages and cultures in one school, educators are bound to have discussion and conflicts regarding the topic.
He told Mint Press News he was bound by law and not allowed to discuss the incident or what happened to any of the students, but says school officials have taken the accusations of racism seriously.
Schultz’s words reiterated a statement released by school administration officials during the protest: “Our high school has a richly diverse student body, and we are committed to teaching all students. We recognize our students’ right to protest, but also invite them to come back into the building and share any grievances they may have with the high school administration.”
But not every school handles accusations of racism diplomatically.
In January of 2013, a group of students at Washburn High School in Minneapolis were disciplined after a black doll was found hanging from a noose in a school stairwell. Four students responsible for the action were reportedly suspended for four days, while another student was reportedly expelled.
The school held a meeting open to the community to discuss the incident, and a “white rights,” neo-Nazi organization from southern Minnesota planned to make an appearance, but didn’t. Most of the attendees included students of Washburn High School and their parents.
At the meeting, students shared that the doll had been dragged through parts of the school where other students mocked the doll and stepped on it before it was hung in the stairwell. Pictures of the doll were also posted on social media sites.
“This is a form of bullying,” community activist K.G. Wilson said. “It was clearly premeditated so all the kids could see it. It was like they [the perpetrators] were saying ‘We want everyone to know that we are racist. We’re here and we are going to mock you and your ancestors.’”
Some parents and educators called the incident a “teachable moment” saying that this incident may have happened due to a lack of knowledge of black history.
Others said the act was not racially motivated but just a prank. “I know the people that did it and I know they didn’t mean it like people have been taking it,” a Washburn student said. “It was just an idiotic thing. They would have done it if it was a purple baby. They would have done it if it was a white baby or any color baby. They were just acting on a whim.”
Jae Bates is an Asian-American junior at Hopkins. He said administrators are much quicker to punish students who are black or Hispanic than they are other students. “I feel like I could do something 20 times worse than them and I might not get in trouble,” he said.
Gannis is a white student who didn’t think the “rapper” attire was racist — instead he shared he thought the students looked more like “white trash” — but says black and Latino students are treated differently at Hopkins.
Racism in schools is not as obvious as it was 60 years ago when schools were first integrated — as Gannis says racism at Hopkins is not evident by just walking the halls — but it exists.
Gannis says he is currently taking a diversity seminar class at Hopkins predominantly comprised of black and Latino students. He said if a black or Latino student blurts out an answer during class they are sent out in the hall without even so much as a warning.
“It can be something in the curriculum, like we tend to read mostly white authors, learn about white people and white perspectives, while contributions by people of color are often overlooked.”
This discrepancy in how school officials disciplined students of color compared to White students is what prompted the walkout at Hopkins.
“Students of color are disciplined more harshly and more often,” Schwartz said, adding that it’s usually not conscious or intentional. “There’s a lot of research around it,” Schwartz said. “Educators expect people of color to be more challenging behavior-wise,” but often give white students a second chance because they’re a really good kid.
He says society expects misbehavior from people of color so when it happens, educators respond quickly and harshly. “It goes back to stereotypes we are given when we are young that people of color are criminals, dangerous and scary, while whites are good, well-meaning and well-intentioned.
“This often translates into whites getting the benefit of the doubt, since educators problem behavior is seen as exception; parents will handle it at home,” while behavior issues with students of color need to be nipped it in the bud because the stereotypical thought is the family won’t deal with the issues. Schwartz says unconscious messages playing in the minds of educators throughout the U.S. is that students of color are going to be a problem anyway.
“Black students are sent to the office, while whites are corrected in class,” but Schwartz says schools that discipline students by having them reflect on their behavior and how to rectify that behavior actually see fewer suspensions and fewer students sent to the principal’s office.
Suspension or expulsion has been proven to increase a student’s chance of being held back a grade, dropping out, or ending up in the juvenile justice system. While statistics on the effect of less-harsh punishment methods are not available, studies have found that schools with harsh discipline don’t have a more-behaved student body population.
Research from the Council of State Governments Justice Center and Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute found that while some high-poverty schools suspended students at unexpectedly high rates, others with strikingly similar characteristics did not. The same discipline gap was clear for prosperous, suburban schools and small, rural schools; some were harsh, and others with nearly identical qualities were not.
“It’s a really important finding,” Russell Skiba, an Indiana University professor who has studied discipline issues for 15 years, said. “It says it’s not totally about what kids and communities bring but it’s a choice that schools make.”
Harsher punishments viewed as a good thing
While many Americans would balk at the idea that racism still was prevalent in the classroom, there are some who feel African Americans and Latinos deserve every bit of discipline they receive.
But Schwartz says it’s not as simple as people being flat-out racists. “Certainly there are people who buy into the idea ‘they’ cause most of the problems and educators need to address the issues,” but what is more prevalent is white people advocating for unintentionally racist policies.
Those advocating for policies such as zero tolerance policies — do this once and you’re out — often don’t realize these rules are going to be applied in an unequal way, Schwartz said. Another example is No Child Left Behind — the legislation championed by former President George W. Bush who said the law would improve the educational system by holding educators accountable.
In reality, researchers such as Walter Haney, a professor of education at Boston College and senior research associate in the Center for the Study of Testing Evaluation and Educational Policy (CSTEEP), have found high-stakes testing like No Child Left Behind, increases the number of dropouts. A disproportionate number of students leaving school are African American, Latino and Native American students. Not only do these students struggle to find jobs without a high school diploma, but many end up in the school to prison pipeline as well.
It’s these kinds of consequences that Schwartz says demonstrates how racism is not just something that happens in schools. He gave an example how there are harsher penalties for drugs in communities of color vs. whites and how people of color also tend to receive harsher penalties in schools, more criminals in the media are people of color.
Progress to end racism
There is good news though — many schools across the U.S. have made “great strides” in lessening behavioral and academic disparities between Whites and people of color. Schwartz says JUST has worked with schools that are doing great work such as Santa Barbara Unified School District, that educate parents and educators on racism.
Lawyers committed to civil rights and social justice have also worked in recent years to hold schools accountable and treat all students equally. One noteworthy case is Eliezer Williams, et al. vs. State of California et al. The plaintiffs were San Francisco County students who sued the State of California and education agencies such as the California Department of Education for failing to provide all K-12 public school students with equal access to instructional materials, safe and decent school facilities and qualified teachers. The lawsuit was settled in 2004 when the state agreed to provide an additional $139 million to bring schools up to par with their “wealthier and Whiter” counterparts.
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