Growing up in a small, segregated Georgia town in the 1950s, I remember studying from used textbooks that were sent to our Colored school after a white school received its new textbooks. Sometimes the textbooks contained hateful racial slurs written by students who knew that the books were destined for us. I was very hurt by these words and the bigotry and hatred behind them.
When my family moved to California in 1960, I was sure that such incidents of racism would end, but I was wrong. My California high school counselor told me, in spite of excellent grades, that I was not college material, and, as a Negro girl, I should set my sights on becoming a nurse’s aide or a file clerk. While communicating her low expectations to me, she encouraged my white friends to reach for the stars.
Quite the opposite of my counselor’s expectations, I achieved bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Hawaii and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Arizona. After a very successful corporate career, I’m now the president of my own consulting business.
Decades after my school experiences, we may think that such blatant forms of racism against black youth are behind us, but sadly, they still happen today, right here in Tucson. A major cause for alarm is that there are still some administrators and teachers who engage in or tolerate acts of racism.
As a case in point, a white Tucson Unified School District high school teacher recently greeted his class with “What’s up, my n-----?” At the end of class, he announced, “I’m going to the hood to hang out with my n-----.” The class was primarily Anglo, and some told their parents, who complained to the school’s administration about the comments. The teacher admitted to making the comments with the excuse that he was trying to sensitize his students to the N-word while reading “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” The teacher received a five-day suspension.
Complaints of harassment and derogatory language were also investigated at Ironwood Ridge High School in the Amphitheater School District. One of the concerned parents said their children have been victims of hate crimes because they’re black and they have experienced everything from food thrown at them in the cafeteria to the N-word being posted on their Facebook walls and written on desks. The NAACP contacted the Amphitheater School Board about the complaints after being approached by parents, and the school board committed to a full investigation. The NAACP has yet to receive the board’s investigative findings.
Of course, racism in schools is not unique to Tucson. It is happening in schools across the nation. Recently, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against a California school district on behalf of four teenagers who were bullied and harassed in part because of their race. According to the suit, the black students say they faced racial slurs from their classmates, were the target of monkey noises, and had food thrown at them. A Google search for “racial slurs” and “schools” pulls up 385,000 results, including news stories about students or administrators using racist speech in Massachusetts, Minnesota and New York.
Not only do many students face racial slurs, but data from 72,000 schools, collected by the U.S. Department of Education in 2012, found that black students are disproportionately punished, making up 18 percent of students and 35 percent of suspensions.
Is it any wonder that twice as many black students than white students drop out of school?
While we can’t change the nation, we can improve the situation in our city. Our educational systems should be the vanguards of racial tolerance.
Nondiscrimination policies must be consistently enforced, along with a collaborative drive for environmental change through an education and community partnership. My recent participation in the TUSD Strategic Planning session with community involvement was a major step in the right direction.
Daisy M. Jenkins is president of Daisy Jenkins & Associates, specializing in human resources consulting and executive and developmental coaching. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.
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