In the matter of the propriety of publishing a racially insensitive cartoon in the Roosevelt High School student newspaper: Why were no alarm bells set off in the minds of the principal, the journalism teacher or the journalism staff?
One of my former Franklin High School students asked me, concerning the racially insensitive cartoon in The Roosevelt News student newspaper, “What can we do as a broader community?”
I replied that toxic racial stereotypes have victimized black people throughout this nation’s history and seeped into both the conscious and unconscious minds of both white people and people of color. They must be confronted and meaningful steps taken to eradicate them.
The incident reminded me of my years teaching law and coaching the Franklin mock trial team. I was fully aware of the negative racial stereotypes that saturate our society: blacks alleged to be physically gifted as well as criminally inclined, while whites and Asian Americans were seen as being bestowed with intellectual gifts. I vowed to challenge the negative stereotypes and to never to be a part of reinforcing them. I brought African-American lawyers and judges to my Law and Society class.
Mock trial is the most intellectually demanding extracurricular activity available to high school students. I was conscious of the need to find black young men and women to take both witness and attorney roles. And I found them. This involved no sacrifice in performance in the service of a “quota”: the black intellect and acting talent were there, waiting to be discovered.
I was always conscious of how I cast mock-trial witnesses. An African-American female wanted to play the role of a gang leader who had committed a few minor crimes. This set off my stereotype alarm. She had been superb in tryouts in both that role and in another, that of a rich socialite. I told her that I’d rather she take the latter part as we shouldn’t be part of reinforcing racial stereotypes among the overwhelmingly white participants in the state competition.
But she insisted. I said that being that she was a female, the crimes were minor, and that she added a quick wit to the role, I’d allow her to take her preferred role on one condition: that her parents be made aware of my concerns and give their permission. They consented. I never even considered casting a black male in that role because students at the state competition would have had toxic stereotypes reinforced. This is a matter not of “political correctness” but of common sense.
So is the matter of the propriety of publishing the Roosevelt cartoon: Why were no alarm bells set off in the minds of the principal, the journalism teacher or the journalism staff? One of my colleagues used to say that “common sense isn’t as common as people think.” This is particularly true when, as here, it is the implicit racial bias that pervades our society — rather than malicious intent on the part of anyone at Roosevelt — that has overridden our common sense. To avoid that happening requires an awareness and thoughtfulness that were absent at Roosevelt.