Martin Luther King Jr. once said he wanted his four children to “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
You don’t have to be a sociologist to observe that we’re not there yet, 52 years after King made that statement in Washington, D.C. (Among other things, there is considerable disagreement over what that statement means, or should mean today.)
Most people probably would prefer invasive surgery to discussing race. For one thing, conversations about race often aren’t conversations; they’re one side telling the other side to listen and not say anything. Collective guilt is often imputed as well, as if those of us whose ancestors weren’t even in this country before the Civil War are responsible for slavery.
Whether students like it or not, that conversation is going to take place at Platteville High School as a result of threats made late last week. (Which apparently were not made by a PHS student.) PHS is using what happened Friday to find out how students feel about not just race, but how safe students feel at PHS, with activities yet to be determined going from there.
That is even though it is possible that what precipitated last week’s events was less about racism than about students being jerks to each other and using a convenient epithet. High schools are cauldrons of hormones and emotions not always appropriately expressed. Most people do not know what is going on in someone else’s life — whether they’re having financial or workplace problems, or problems in their family, unless that person chooses to disclose those problems.
That also comes to mind in reading the comments attached to the survey as well, which included one statement in favor of the Confederate flag, one that said “This school does not take differences nicely” (a statement that could apply to any high school anywhere, regardless of racial composition) and statements about the First Amendment and staying off social media. One accusation that the school district “is not disciplining African–Americans because they don’t want to get sued” was countered by “The black people in this school get it constantly and then when they actually stick up for themselves they get in a lot of trouble.”
Part of the problem in having a conversation about race is that race issues are often more about cultural issues than skin color. A black child who grows up in a single-parent family in, for instance, Milwaukee does not have the same experience as a black child of a two-parent family in Platteville. For that matter, replace “black” with “white” or “Latino” in that sentence, and the result is the same.
The irony is that this is taking place in a community that is certainly the most diverse, racially and otherwise, in Southwest Wisconsin, thanks largely to UW–Platteville. So it’s probably appropriate that the school district has reached out to UWP and its Stop the Hate program.
The opposite irony is that sociologists have been claiming this entire century that Americans are more segregated than ever. That’s not along race lines; it’s along cultural, occupational, religious and political lines, and it is segregation by choice. Ask yourself this: How many people do you know who do not have the same religious beliefs as you? How many people do you know who are in a completely different line of work from yourself? How many people do you know whose vote in elections cancels out yours?
I certainly cannot predict how this is all going to turn out here in Platteville this school year. Suffice to say that this wasn’t a column I would have predicted I would have been writing before Friday morning. For those who think the school district overreacted late last week: By 2050, demographers project, there will be no majority race in the U.S. There will be more whites than any other minority group, but there will be more non-whites than whites in the U.S.
This is a strange way to end this column, but I got an anonymous letter from someone about an incident at UW–Platteville earlier this month, with what were described as “two hate-filled, holier-than-thou sexist, homophobic, judgmental bigots,” surrounded by a group of people ... listening, though probably not agreeing. The writer said UW–Platteville police officers “didn’t seem to agree with what was being said or done — but they were still there ... keeping the community safe and trying to maintain order and peace.” One police officer called the day “a beautiful day for people to flex their Constitutional rights.”
At the end of the day, we have to get along with each other, regardless of our differences, and whether we agree or disagree with each other. That’s what a civilized society does. High school students might as well learn that before they enter the real world.