Until it’s too late

It seems to me that there’s a surge in racist activity at schools and universities lately, and I often wonder if the problem is exacerbated by administrators who don’t take action early enough. In a recent Pennsylvania case, a clique of students was known to display Confederate flags and parked cars in an area known informally as “Redneck Row.” It came to a head last week, and the school superintendent said that it was a “wake-up call” for the district.

But it appears somebody had been pressing the snooze alarm for years:

At a community meeting Monday, some parents said their earlier complaints about Confederate flag displays and racial slurs fell on deaf ears. Others complained that the district took too long to punish the perpetrators.

One of the arguments about the Confederate flag issue hinged on free speech rights. But I think that’s faulty and is just a convenient excuse for not doing anything. Courts typically have upheld the schools’ rights about offensive speech and recognize the need for schools to maintain regulations to promote safety and discipline.

I think one of the problems is that administrators don’t know what to do or don’t really wish to deal with these types of difficult issues. Instead they fall back on excuses (such as free speech) that sound good and are easily swallowed by the majority. People who are not strongly affected by racist symbols may not have any recognition of the deeper meaning and the usage to intimidate and harass. Additionally, there is a lack of understanding about what constitutes a racial slur or racial harassment. The n-word is typically understood to be a slur, but school administrators (and others) tend to brush off the meaning of slurs directed towards other ethnic or racial minorities.

A few years back somebody painted a number of swastikas and slurs in a children’s park near where I lived, and I called repeatedly to report them and ask that they be removed. I was shocked and appalled that nobody else seemed to be bothered by them. In a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, I believe that action would have been taken swiftly. In a predominantly Christian area, nothing happened for a long, long time. (I was going to take some spray paint and paint over them myself, but was afraid of getting arrested. Now that’s screwed up.)

We’re going to see Jena again, I’m afraid.  When will we rise from our stupor, get out of bed and answer that wake-up call?

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