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Editorial: We don’t live in a post-racist society

We had a debate on whether to run a photo last week of a women’s basketball team that was touring the area 75 years ago in our Pages of the Past column.

The team, made up entirely of black women, included the “tallest girl in the world.” On its surface, the photo was pretty neat. However, they called themselves the “Chocolate Coed basketball quintet.” It’s a name that makes me cringe today and, yet, was somehow accepted back then. The editor at the time said the team was “composed of negro girls,” another cringe-worthy term.

Our Pages of the Past column typically contains word-for-word content of our 131-year-old paper as we find it in our archives. Rarely, do we ever change the content, except for some minor style issues.

And, 75-years-ago, The Vidette ran content and words that were certainly not politically correct. I was reminded that, although the content may have raised eye brows, the fact that Montesano allowed an all female, black basketball team to play an exhibition game inside Montesano High School’s gymnasium was actually a pretty admirable feat — and the newspaper printed their photo. It may actually show a bit of tolerance. To give you an idea of the time frame, this was three years after Jesse Owens took home four gold medals at the Nazi Germany Olympics.

I wish I could say that we, as a society, have come a long way since those days.

But, if even the tiniest bit of the recent lawsuit filed against the Elma School District is true, it saddens me.

In case you missed it, recent Elma High School graduate Cassie Hall, who is black, is suing the school district in federal court, claiming to “vindicate her fundamental right to have an education free from bigotry and discriminatory intimidation, and to enjoy the same educational opportunities as her Caucasian peers.”

She alleges a laundry list of issues that happened at the school district, including name calling and “repeated instances of racial discrimination and its failure to acknowledge, let alone adequately correct, the racism that Miss Hall was forced to endure,” according to the lawsuit.

She says she heard many derogative terms in the hallways of the school, including the N word — the real bad N word that I’m not going to dignify by publishing it here.

Following a discussion after a video about the Ku Klux Klans, one of her peers allegedly told her and the teacher that “black people should be slaves.”

There were many more incidents claimed.

The School District denies any wrong doing. They have motions to basically gut the lawsuit.

We had another set of parents who were going to talk to us — parents that have not yet filed a lawsuit, but are considering it. They also had a black student at Elma High School. But, they backed out of talking to us after their attorney insisted it would be a bad idea before anything was actually filed and were worried the district might retaliate and sue them.

I’m only mentioning it because one kid complaining may be just that, but multiple kids complaining may be an issue.

The unvetted details of the second family included claims that a student told the girl that “she should be hung for being black.” The girl allegedly yelled at the student — but she was the one sent to the office for yelling, not the other student for making racist comments.

There were apparently times when she was harassed on Facebook by her peers, where people called her the N word regularly. And a real fight broke out with a girl that was allegedly caught on tape.

We have a public records request on file with the Elma School District to get more details of these incidents and any others.

I’ve known several families on the Harbor who have been the victim of racism. I knew the Dickersons quite well. They got the ACLU involved and Russell Dickerson sued the Aberdeen School District.

I remember sitting in the Dickersons’ living room, when Russell was still in school. He was a bit awkward — carrying a brief case to middle school — but he didn’t deserve to be bullied. MySpace was popular then. And the messages of hate being posted on the public website from Aberdeen students were real. It was disgusting. It still angers me today.

In 2012, the insurance company for the Aberdeen School District settled the lawsuit. Dickerson got $100,000 and the ACLU got $35,000 to cover legal fees.

“Public school officials must be held accountable when they fail to meet their responsibility to act decisively when a student is subjected to harassment by his peers. This settlement sends a message to school districts statewide to take strong action as soon as they learn that a student is being bullied,” Sarah Dunne, ACLU-WA legal director, said in a press release at the time.

“I learned from my parents that you should never give up. You should fight for your rights – you don’t just walk away,” Dickerson said.

About a decade ago, I covered the incidents at the Coast Guard Station in Westport. There was a Samoan Coast Guard member, whom I spoke to, who was being transferred because she was tired of the harassment. The transfer came on the tail end of another Coast Guard member, who also transferred because of discrimination. I remember the true fear in her eyes.

I remember covering racial issues in Hoquiam. Back in 2006, Angela Walker was just fed up. She was mad at the city. She was mad at the school district. The Seattle Weekly carried her and her family on the cover, stating “Black and White in Grays Harbor County” talking about incidents where people would touch her mixed race children’s hair in the grocery aisle. One year later, attorneys with the Washington State Bar Association took the Weekly report and wrote an official-looking report on racism on the Harbor “where the N word is still used, black children continue to be victimized by threats and physical violence and (where) teenagers wear Confederate symbols on school grounds.” The state bar association called the report unauthorized and apologized for it.

However, instead of ignoring the potential problem, Hoquiam Mayor Jack Durney worked with Walker and tried to make the community better. Durney says today that the situation has improved, that he is friends with Walker — that he and the city council worked with the church community to make sure people knew what was acceptable and what was certainly not.

“I’m proud that she’s a friend today,” Durney said. “I’m proud that her family has felt comfortable enough to stay here.”

Instead of ignoring the situation, Durney led an effort in Hoquiam to do something about it.

I list these examples not as a way of showing that racism is rampant on the Harbor, but to acknowledge it exists here. I believe it exists in many places. It’s not exclusive to the Harbor. But, I’m a white guy and have never experienced true prejudice because of the color of my skin or my gender. So, what do I know, really?

I do know that comments made to my fiancé — a Filipino female — have angered me and sometimes statements made in jest still have overly racist undertones to them.

“We have some rednecks here,” Durney says, plainly. “We just do and we need to show that the attitude is not acceptable.”

It was 10 years ago this week that a 14-year-old at the Elma School District wrote a “slaughter list.” The incident went to court. Charges were filed. As a result, The Vidette ran a story about Elma educators developing programs teaching students that was once considered a joke or sarcasm could actually be ruled as harassment.

“We were unaware of the student being picked on prior to interviews with students and the police being involved,” the principal said at the time.

Maybe the district should reconsider these programs. There’s plenty of reports from these latest students of complaints to staff and teachers. If just one statement out of these lawsuits is true, it’s too much.

It’s not just enough to have an assembly to honor Martin Luther King Jr.

In the words of King, together, as a community, we need to help students develop their “life’s blueprint.”

“Whenever a building is constructed, you usually have an architect who draws a blueprint, and that blueprint serves as the pattern, as the guide, and a building is not well erected without a good, solid blueprint,” King told junior high students six months before he was assassinated. “Now, each of you, is in the process of building the structure of your lives, and the question is whether you have a proper, a solid and a sound blueprint.”

Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at editor@thevidette.com

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