Old-School Racism: The “We Don’t Want Trouble” Argument

Think Progress recently brought to attention the fact that vintage racism is very much alive. This summer, Kymberly Wimberly, a high school student (and mother) from Arkansas was denied sole valedictorian honors, despite earning the highest G.P.A. in her class at McGehee Secondary School. The reason? Because she is black.

A civil rights protest, circa 1963. Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/blatantworld

A civil rights protest, circa 1963. Image courtesy of http://www.flickr.com/photos/blatantworld

The administration of the school – fearing that her accomplishments would result in a “big mess” at the majority-white school (to quote the Principal, Darrell Thompson) – decided to name a white student as co-valedictorian, despite the fact the white student had a lower G.P.A. The matter is currently pending in federal court. This kind of decision is absolutely unacceptable in any case, but the fact that it has been made by an educator is even more frightening. What kind of things are the students of McGehee Secondary School being taught?

On taking the matter before the school board, Wimberly’s mother was informed that she had filled out the wrong form and was not able to speak on behalf of her daughter. The last African-American valedictorian in McGehee School District was in 1989. In the Court House News report, Kymberly’s mother (who is the school’s ‘certified media specialist’) relates that the school discourages black students from taking honors and advanced placement classes, “by telling them, among other things, that the work was too hard”.

The indignities of Jim Crow and the racial caste system are very much alive; the segregated South is not a part of American history. In the Crow era, you adopted one of two stances: the aggressor (actively underscore black inferiority) or the bystander (the kind who would passively insist, “We don’t want any trouble”). Today, America claims that it is post-racial; by so doing, all it seems to do is emphasize the endurance of racism. The response of McGehee Secondary School to a black valedictorian may seem antiquated, but it is most certainly not uncommon in America; neither is the old-school racism it safeguards.

When residents of Prescott, Arizona shouted racial slurs at non-white students who were painting a school mural, the administration of the school did not speak out against racism; instead, it requested that the students lighten the skin tone of the Hispanic boy depicted on the mural to avoid “a controversy”. The Principal of the school has said that his request had nothing to do with political pressure:

“We asked them to fix the shading on the children’s faces… We were looking at it from an artistic view. Nothing at all to do with race.”

R.E. Wall, director of Prescott’s Downtown Mural Project, said that Principal Jeff Lane pressed him to make the children’s faces appear happier and brighter. Wall added:

“It is being lightened because of the controversy… they want it to look like the children are coming into light.”

City Councilman Steve Blair spearheaded a public campaign on his talk show at the local radio station to remove the mural, saying:

“To depict the biggest picture on the building as a Black person, I would have to ask the question: Why?”

Other incidents include schools in states like Georgia, Mississippi and Alabama holding segregated proms for black and white students. These kinds of proms are commonplace in the rural South, though some communities are successfully pushing for change.

When Morgan Freeman offered to fund the first integrated prom at Charleston High School in Mississippi ten years ago, the students were enthusiastic about the idea; school administration and white parents, however, did not embrace the idea and the parents held a competing ‘private’ prom. Three years ago, in 2008, the issue was raised again when Morgan Freeman’s offer was accepted and Charleston had its first integrated prom. Still, overt racism reared its ugly head. One parent, for instance, reportedly said, “I’m not going to have any of those niggers rubbing up against my daughter” while others insisted that a divided dance would avoid “racial flareups”. This attestation of fear of violence is really just a fear of change and this is not a far cry from the Jim Crow era. The words of a student, Chasidy Buckley, who got caught up in the ensuing Mississippi prom fight, didn’t show much diplomacy when she described what was at the heart of the racial discrimination:

 “The [school] said, ‘why change now? Let’s just keep going.’ That’s the whole thing with our town. Everybody’s afraid of change. It’s just horrible.”

America is still grappling with the issues of racial integration that have haunted the country for decades.

As for the case of Kymberly Wimberly: she is currently seeking punitive damages for constitutional violations, and an injunction to declare her the sole valedictorian of the school’s class of 2011. The complaint states:

 “Because of defendants’ continuous disparate treatment of African-American students, defendants’ actions toward the plaintiff can properly be classed as intentional… defendants did not support African-American students, and did not want to see Wimberly, an African-American young mother as valedictorian… But for Wimberly’s race, defendants would not have selected a student with a lower G.P.A. than Wimberly to also be a valedictorian.”

Her claim is secured by the 14th amendment of the U.S. constitution, but what position will the conservative courts take?

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Categories: Beliefs, Morals, Multiculturalism, People, Politics, Law

Author:Mary-Ellen L

Lives at www.animadvert.co.uk. Lecturer in Literature and Philosophy, Poet and Professional Cynic.

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3 Comments on “Old-School Racism: The “We Don’t Want Trouble” Argument”

  1. August 3, 2011 at 1:39 pm #

    Hmmm. What is the likelihood that now that this case leaves the state courts and becomes a federal court ruling, perhaps the ruling will be slightly less racist? Or does that too depend on whether the federal court is actually located and staffed by people from elsewhere in the country?

    People with a higher degree of intelligence, a sense of equality and tolerance and moral standing, people who don’t act like sheep.

    You know? People that have more of a claim to be judge and jury instead of these primitives running the schools and towns.

  2. August 3, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    Have you seen the latest US census map by ethnicity?


    Every American city is divided into black, white, asian and hispanic zones with very little overlap, even in the northern states. America is basically living in apartheid even if the public institutions in a state are inclusive. That said there has been extraordinary progress in the USA over the last hundred years in regards to racism. Even in the early 20th century townsfolk used to go out and entertain themselves by lynching a few black fellows and having a picnic under the tree they used to hang them.

    I’ve read and heard about some really nasty/cynical ideas about race relations and I’m frankly disturbed by them as I been told that we have never had a situation in history, anywhere in the world, where two racial groups have integrated seemlessly into one society for a long period of time. America is perhaps the exception and the prime example of this problem at the same time. The scientific perspective is that human beings (in general, not just white folks) act with extreme hostility and callousness to anyone they perceive as an outsider. Keeping that definition of an insider broad is the challenge for any multi-racial society.

  3. August 9, 2011 at 7:42 am #

    If only real life could prove as easily integrated as the map.

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