The Recent Black Panther Controversy & Woodbury’s History of Racial Antagonism

by R.L. Stephens II on May 4, 2013

A few months ago I spoke out in support of Black high school students that read an announcement about the Black Panthers during Black History Month.   A group of misinformed parents have objected to the reading of the announcement, and I pointed out some of the falsehoods and inconsistencies in their position.  For example, many of these detractors claim that the Black Panthers were racist or anti-White.

The Black Panthers were not racist, and in fact, they looked for numerous opportunities to build cross-racial solidarity (h/t Walidah Imarisha).  Here are the Black Panthers collaborating with the Young Patriots, a Southern White working class group known to sport Confederate Flags, in a meeting facilitated by Black Panther and future U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush.

At one point in the video, Rush says, “The thing we got to deal with is the concept of poverty.  We gotta erase the color thing.”

So, as we can see, the Black Panthers are nothing like the KKK, as these misinformed parents have claimed.  This fallacy, among other misconceptions, shows just how baseless their opposition really is.

Racial Antagonism in Woodbury Over the Years

I wrote the letter of support because I remember what it was like to be young and Black in the Woodbury school system.  In fact, ten years ago, as a fifteen year old, I spoke out in a front page feature in the Pioneer Press against the racial antagonism that I felt in the district.

Robert Stephens Jr. gets A’s and B’s at Woodbury High School. But the sophomore, who is black, gets ridiculed by some of his white classmates for making good grades. “They look at me and say, ‘You’re not black, Robert. I’m more black than you,’ ” he said. “They think because I’m black, I’m not supposed to speak well. Or I should be beating people up. And that’s just ignorant.”

Some of his fellow students think bigotry can be graded. Spraying a swastika on someone’s locker is seen as worse than calling a person names. “But I don’t feel that’s the case,” he said. “All forms of racism are the same. They’re just as bad as the person spraying the symbols or joining a hate group.”

Robert Stephens Jr. said he wants to see a time where students won’t refer to all Hispanics as Mexicans. Or all Asians as Chinese. And maybe they’ll stop taunting white people who “act black.” He said students need a better understanding of other cultures and those who are different from them. “The only way to fight these things is education,” Stephens said. “The only way kids will do things differently is to be shown another way.”

Photo no longer shows because Pioneer Press has archived the story

White Supremacist Site

As a result of the Pioneer Press story, my name and photo wound up on a White Nationalist website.

I’m used to malicious people trying to intimidate me for standing against injustice, but I refuse to stand silent as it happens to others.

Last week, a friend of mine suggested that Woodbury High School was responsible for my achievements in the world.  I objected, telling him that the school’s relatively low retention rate of Black male students, in combination with the even fewer that went on to college, demonstrated that Woodbury was not the catalyst for my accomplishments.

The fact that I overcame the racially-motivated bias, intimidation, and ridicule that I experienced in Woodbury High School is a testimony to my support network, and not the school itself.  Unfortunately, some of the other Black students, particularly Black males, did not have similar assistance.

So, when I saw a teacher and some Black students trying, as I did, to carve out a niche for themselves in a hostile environment, I wanted to offer my words and experiences as support for their courageous efforts.

The Announcement Isn’t the Problem, It’s Racial Antagonism

In a climate of racial antagonism, the announcements during Black history month were one of the few times that I had the chance to have an empowering educational moment.  My senior year I and other Black students read Black history facts on the PA system, one of which included an homage that I wrote to militant Black nationalist Malcolm X.

As I said in the 2003 article, education is a critical method for fighting against racial antagonism.  That’s why I felt the need to read the announcements over the intercom.  Because Black history and other non-White struggles are not integrated into the existing curriculum, students often have to find extracurricular means of creating empowering educational moments, like during the morning announcements.  Demonizing the poem’s reading and trying to launch a pointless “investigation” in no way helps to transform the learning community.

I’m not the only person who is and has been interested in transforming the learning community into a more dynamic and inclusive space.  As the 2003 Pioneer Press article shows, there have been a number of people in the district who have spoken out against racial antagonism, and that tradition has continued.

The Pioneer Press story has been archived, so here is the text in its entirety.

 

SUBURBS SEEK RACIAL HARMONY SOUTH WASHINGTON COUNTY DISTRICT HIRES A SPECIALIST TO ADDRESS PROBLEMS RAISED BY PARENTS AS SCHOOLS BECOME MORE DIVERSE.

MEGAN BOLDT, Pioneer Press

Robert Stephens Jr. gets A’s and B’s at Woodbury High School. But the sophomore, who is black, gets ridiculed by some of his white classmates for making good grades. “They look at me and say, ‘You’re not black, Robert. I’m more black than you,’ ” he said. “They think because I’m black, I’m not supposed to speak well. Or I should be beating people up. And that’s just ignorant.”

Urban districts and first-ring suburbs have long struggled to keep racial harmony in their schools. Now, some of the Twin Cities’ more distant suburbs are seeing how hard it can be. Minority-student enrollment has more than doubled since the 1990s in the South Washington County district, which includes Woodbury High. Students of color report being hit with racial slurs from classmates and being treated unfairly by teachers and administrators. In July, about 50 parents of color showed up at a South Washington County school board meeting to complain about how their kids were being treated. In the next two weeks, three “integration specialists” hired by the district will begin to try to address some of the problems raised by parents. Lisa McLeod, who started as the district’s diversity coordinator about a year and a half ago, said the integration specialists would help staff develop multicultural sensitivity and assist parents of color when they’re concerned their children aren’t receiving equal treatment. The district also started a summer program called Project Alliance this year. It brings in students from around the district who are deemed to be “falling through the cracks,” McLeod said. She said the group was racially and socially diverse. “It’s not just about protected classes of students having equal access,” McLeod said. “But also that the dominant group of students has a cross-cultural understanding.”

NOT ENOUGH?

Critics say South Washington County’s approach does not go far enough, arguing that hiring more minority staff members would help enhance diversity and better reflect the racial makeup of the district. Cottage Grove resident Earnestine Watson, whose grandson graduated from Park High School last year, said students of color need teachers, counselors and administrators they can relate to and view as role models. Watson said the three integration specialists are a start, but she’s upset that one of the new hires is white. “We’re asking for people of color,” she said. “The children want to go to someone that won’t judge them, someone they feel comfortable with.” McLeod said it’s against federal and state discrimination laws to require a certain ethnicity for job openings. And suburban districts find it difficult to recruit minorities to teach in the predominantly white communities.

Out of 1,050 teachers in the South Washington County district, 13 — or 1 percent — are racial minorities. At the administrative level, close to 2 percent — 1 of 55 — of the principals and administrators are not white. Those teachers and administrators are working with a student body made up of 15 percent minority students, about on par with other Twin Cities suburban districts. Other districts are attempting integration projects similar to South Washington County’s. The North Suburban Integration School District is a cooperative effort of seven school districts stretching from Fridley to Buffalo. Children participate in clubs, where they learn about art in another culture. Parents attend meetings to learn how to advocate for their children. And teachers attend multicultural training sessions. The integration district was created in 2001, and programs started this past January.

STUDENT ACTION

Some Woodbury High School students are taking the issue of race relations into their own hands. Members of the school’s SADD chapter — Students Against Destructive Decisions — say the school is becoming more diverse each year, and they want to prevent racial incidents from happening at their school. Other suburban schools have witnessed ugly racial episodes. In 1998, Anoka High School had a gang of white students called the All American Boys roaming the halls. The white gang, with Confederate flags tucked into their pockets, would slam minority students with racial slurs. That same year, school officials suspended eight students for driving by a classmate’s Ramsey home and yelling racial epithets.

At Woodbury High, senior Lindsay Carrier said discrimination is subtle. Some will roll their eyes, bump into certain people on purpose or make snide remarks to their friends. Many students understand those actions are unacceptable, said Katie Salo. But others don’t get it. “We just hope by raising awareness, it will affect some people,” the 17-year-old said. “Even if one person stops, it’s worth it. And maybe the next time we have an event, even more students will get it.” Stephens agreed, saying some of his fellow students think bigotry can be graded. Spraying a swastika on someone’s locker is seen as worse than calling a person names. “But I don’t feel that’s the case,” he said. “All forms of racism are the same. They’re just as bad as the person spraying the symbols or joining a hate group.” SADD adviser Merridith Duellman, a science teacher at Woodbury High School, said the few students who make poor decisions get more attention than the ones who try to reach out. “Our high school consists of some great kids,” Duellman said. “Tolerance has come a long way. Understanding has come a long way.” “But we have a long way to go,” Carrier added.

Robert Stephens Jr. said he wants to see a time where students won’t refer to all Hispanics as Mexicans. Or all Asians as Chinese. And maybe they’ll stop taunting white people who “act black.” He said students need a better understanding of other cultures and those who are different from them. “The only way to fight these things is education,” Stephens said. “The only way kids will do things differently is to be shown another way.”

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