Sunday, September 21, 2014
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Coatesville case brings up painful reminders

Students showing support for Coatesville teachers and the district before Tuesday´s school board meeting.
Students showing support for Coatesville teachers and the district before Tuesday's school board meeting.
The racist text messages found on the cellphones of two now-former administrators in the Coatesville school system reminded me of my first venture north from Alabama to attend college in Kansas.

Baker University, with only 800 students in 1971, had a very diverse student population from across the United States and more than a dozen countries, many of whom, to my surprise, voiced sympathy for me after learning I had grown up in the segregated South.

I tried to explain to them a philosophy I hold to today, that racism isn't geographical, but that how it is practiced can be. In the Deep South, I said, black people appreciated knowing exactly where white folks were coming from. Then, if I was feeling "groovy," as we used to say back in the day, I might hum a few bars of the Temptations' "Smiling Faces":

Beware of the pat on the back

It just might hold you back . . .

Don't let the handshake and the smile fool you

Take my advice, I'm only trying to school you

It's a shame that, four decades later, that is still a lesson African American and other minority children must learn. It's even worse when the lesson comes from so-called educators who, instead of modeling tolerance, seem to compete to see how often they can use use the N-word in a sentence.

Such vile messages were found on the cellphones of former Coatesville Superintendent Richard Como and high school athletic director James Donato by an IT worker wiping data from Donato's district-issued cellphone.

Como subsequently retired and Donato resigned. Protesting parents and students wanted the administrators fired, but their resignations were accepted Tuesday by the Coatesville school board, which has also mandated sensitivity training for all district employees.

Sensitivity sessions won't repair the emotional damage that has been done to Coatesville's minority students. Derisive comments about women, Jews, and Middle Easterners were also made in the texts. "He shook hands with everybody, and then he talks about us behind our backs," Krishaia Hall, a high school senior, said about Como in comments to the Coatesville Times.

That's a lesson she and other Coatesville students will likely never forget. I certainly remember the first time a white person called me nigger; I was 9. This incident will cause some students to mentally question people whose sincerity they have no direct reason to doubt. Thus, another generation picks up the same baggage their elders had prayed they could avoid.

When football player Riley Cooper let the n-word slip during a drunken outburst at a country music concert, it was dismissed by many as inappropriate behavior by someone who just had too much to drink. Cooper apologized profusely, and most of his Eagles teammates seemed quick to forgive him, knowing that to do otherwise might inhibit the teamwork needed to win.

But not everyone was so forgiving. And even among the forgivers, some sounded tentative, knowing alcohol can reveal a person's true nature. The inebriated throw caution to the wind, especially when they believe the ears hearing what they say belong to drinking buddies who agree with them. But as Cooper learned, in this age of cellphone cameras, you should watch what you say even among friends.

In contrast, the anonymity provided by the Internet entices people to express their true feelings to absolute strangers because they don't have to worry about being held accountable. Look how quickly bigots posted derisive comments after brown-skinned Nina Davuluri became the first woman of Indian heritage crowned Miss America. "Congratulations, al-Qaeda. Our Miss America is one of you," said one post to Twitter.

If that twit ever met Davuluri, he would likely be the epitome of graciousness, never saying or doing anything to suggest his prejudice against anyone who doesn't look like his ideal of Miss America, or any other "American," for that matter.

It's more than troubling that many of the same people who are so quick, among their friends, or within the anonymous world of the Internet, to spout their prejudiced thoughts also want to claim this is a post-racial America that no longer needs affirmative action or other remedies to the vestiges of discrimination, past and present, that exist.

In light of the Coatesville text messages, it's fair to wonder if prejudice influenced decisions made about young people in the district. Who didn't get proper guidance, or a second chance, or an award because of skin color?

What those children did get was a painful lesson that has been taught in America for too long: Your best may not be enough when it has to overcome prejudice. It's a lesson I learned as a child. It's a lesson I wished my children didn't have to learn. Now, my wish is for their children.


Harold Jackson is editor of the Inquirer Editorial Board. hjackson@phillynews.com

215-854-2555 @harjerjac

Harold Jackson Inquirer Opinion Columnist
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