Equity & Diversity Opinion

Racism’s Ugly Face Calls Us to Positive Action

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 30, 2014 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The horror of class stratification, racism, and prejudice is that some people begin to believe that the security of their families and communities depends on the oppression of others, that for some to have good lives there must be others whose lives are truncated and brutal.” - Dorothy Allison

After the news was filled with uproar and support for the Nevada cattle farmer, Cliven Bundy, who was breaking the law by allowing his cattle to graze on federal land without paying the fees the law requires, he acquired some kind of folk hero status. From that platform, he began to speak out on issues other than taxation. He entered the issue of race wondering if blacks have been better off under slavery. As he described his thinking, and listed the benefits he saw, you knew this had been on his mind or a long time...an appalling statement that reveals an inner character. We wonder about his age, the environment in which he may have been raised, what he was taught in school, and the friends he has kept but, fundamentally, he was exposed. It made those politicians, who for some curious reason jumped to support him as he broke the law by using government land without leasing it, distance themselves from him. No matter their personal biases, they certainly did not want to be painted with the same brush. They knew what he said and believed was offensive and wrong. He, however, apparently did not.

Maybe I sinned, and maybe I need to ask forgiveness, and maybe I don’t know what I actually said, but when you talk about prejudice, we’re talking about not being able to exercise what we think. ... If I say Negro or black boy or slave, if those people cannot take those kind of words and not be (offended), then Martin Luther King hasn’t got his job done yet,” he told anchor Chris Cuomo, adding, “We need to get over this prejudice stuff.”

Yes, we do need to “get over this prejudice stuff” but not in the way he meant those words. Freedom of speech protects his right to express those bigoted comments and allows us the right to stand against them. And it is from this lesson, we can benefit by stopping and asking ourselves if we, too, have any beliefs hidden deep within us that inform our decisions in teaching and leading. Are there judgments about classes and races of those we teach, work or meet with that inform our attitudes and actions? As we choose to distance ourselves from folks like Cliven Bundy, we benefit from the IMAX screen onto which he has been projected and ask ourselves if we have any of that within us. We also have an obligation to attend to the children who are in our schools as this news is repeated over and over...for many of them it is either about who they are and for others it is about what they think and feel. These are the kind of issues that go unmeasured and unthought about, that both interfere with learning and make children feel unsafe.

After days of reporting about Mr. Bundy, Donald Sterling made the news. He is the owner of the LA Clippers, a team of professional athletes who are primarily black and who have a black coach. Sterling was about to receive an award from the NAACP. But, he, too, spoke his deeply held racism out loud. The octogenarian with a long and sordid past was recorded by his mistress as he tells her not to bring black people to his games. He didn’t want her photographed with black people. The face of America as presented by these two senior men is an ugly one.

The news of Donald Sterling’s racists rant was looped on the news even overshadowing the search for flight 370 and the sinking of the ferry in South Korea. The media was infuriated and was calling for sanctions. Sterling admitted the voice was his. As an aside, we notice his wife of 50 years and “the mistress of the moment” appear to be sidelined as players in a drama worthy of an awful TV reality show. The players went on the court in the playoffs and, with great dignity, expressed their unity in a pregame protest over the man who owns their team. Today the NBA Commissioner responded with the heaviest penalties he could mete out and a recommendation to remove Sterling from ownership.

On April 13th, Frazier Glenn Miller, a former KKK grand dragon was arrested for shooting and killing three people while shouting anti-Semitic slurs at a Jewish center and Jewish retirement home in a town outside Kansas City. No one he actually shot was Jewish but his intention was clear.

The actions taken will tell the story in all three cases. Mr. Bundy, Mr. Sterling, and Mr. Miller have all given voice to a racist mentality that still lives inside some of us in this nation. Their voices shed light on the deep underbelly of racism. It would be an illusion if we allowed ourselves to believe that age was the cause, though it may have allowed them to let their guard down and do say what was on their minds and hearts. Oh, we have come a long way but we have not arrived at justice and equity.

Especially, because one of these incidences involves professional sports, black youth will be watching and listening. They need to hear leaders speak out with outrage and indignation at the vitriol these men have spewed onto our screens and into our homes. In our words and actions, we must represent the good in America. We must hold the doors open to those who have found them closed. That’s what educational leaders are called to do. They will believe us if our words and actions match.

So much of what I know, I know because someone told me a story in which I could hear echoed back to me a truth I could understand. The great ambition it seems to me is the desire to echo the story on to yet others who need to know what they know and do not know.” - Dorothy Allison

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.