Race to the Bottom

Santa Monica High School, Santa Monica, CA

Apologies for yet another post about school, but it's long been true that school is where many fundamental American hang-ups about race, class, character, ethics, politics, etc. converge and kind of congeal into an inert mass that only seems to grow. It sits there, silent but in plain sight, until some incident reminds us of its cancerous, elephantine presence and makes us think about what we can do--what we want to do--to treat the disease.

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The recent Times report about an incident at Santa Monica High School, in which members of the wrestling team allegedly chained a black teammate to his locker and hung him in effigy, comes late. I'd heard about it last week at Samohi's graduation from a white parent who had herself heard about it weeks after it took place May 4. The mother was disturbed by the ugly nature of the incident, but more disturbed by the fact that the school seemed more interested in keeping things quiet than in treating the incident, heavy as it is with historical racial symbolism, with the gravitas and public discussion it deserved.

Parents did get an email about the matter weeks later, she said, but it was the sort of all-clear memo that too eagerly assured people the perpetrators were being punished and things were being taken care of--the implication being that everybody can go about their business and graduation will proceed on schedule unmarred by protests or anything that might mar a celebratory day. The mother was also floored by the fact that the mother of the targeted student didn't even know about what had happened until the end of May, and that she had gotten the information by chance from another parent she didn't even know. The whole thing is now in the hands of the Santa Monica Police, who may or may not bring a hate crime charge in addition to assault charges.

We have been here before. What strikes me as freshly disturbing is the fact that the foot-dragging happened in Santa Monica, that bastion of liberalism by the sea. The city may rightly pride itself on accommodating the homeless and sanctioning living wages, but when faced with an issue of black bigotry--against a minor, no less--it ran as scared (or as indifferent) as lots of other majority-white places. Of course we all know that not all bigotry is created equal; imagine if the student had been Jewish and his wrestling teammates had dangled a swatstika over his head. There would have been public forums, diversity training sessions, the whole nine yards. Taking action would not have been a choice.

But in the new millennium we have somehow convinced ourselves that animus towards black folk has gone postmodern and is now a joke, or a gesture with moderate meaning, or certainly with less meaning than it used to have. After all, we have a black president, right? Right. And he's endured more threats on his life and naked insults from his fellow Americans (sometimes from fellow elected officials) than any other commander-in-chief. The black student at Santa Monica is a far cry from being president, obviously. To put it very mildly, he is vulnerable. We all are.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing is that the student himself more or less kept his mouth shut about the whole thing. That more than anything speaks to how we have learned to minimize the poisonous effects of racism directed at blacks, the fact that blacks have learned it better than most. That's a real crime.

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in Los Angeles, with an eye towards the city's African American community, appear every Thursday at 2 p.m. on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user mizzcreation. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Journalist and op-ed columnist Erin Aubry Kaplan's first-person accounts of politics and identity in L.A., with an eye toward the city's African American community, appear weekly on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.
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Disturbing indeed. Downright chilling. Hadn't heard about this, so thanks for covering.