Has anybody at the Windham Central Supervisory Union, or at the local NAACP, ever bothered to read, and, more important, to learn from, these words of Frederick Douglass: “It is not light that we need, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
Is Douglass’s view consistent with trying to deal with racist conduct in schools through the “Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Project,” or through programs of the “Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” or, as the NAACP has suggested, by hiring an “equity director” and by having meetings “with students when racial issues arise,” or by engaging in a multitude of trainings, or by reading pamphlets like “Responding to Hate and Bias at School.” Lofty language and high-sounding honorifics are but words, words, words that are, ultimately, full of sound and fury, signifying exactly what The Bard taught us life’s tale adds up to. (Pardon me, English majors, for blending his plays like that.)
Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that racism in the United States will ever be fully extirpated. People are entitled to think and to believe whatever they choose to think and to believe, and quite without regard to whether or not there is a factual basis for those beliefs. And all the trainings and curriculums and meetings and pamphlets and equity directors in the world are not likely to change those chosen beliefs.
But whatever people may choose to think and to believe, and as much as that is their right, they certainly have no right to take any action they want to take based on those thoughts and beliefs. There is an overabundance of laws in this country designed to prohibit all kinds of conduct and to isolate offenders to prevent them from repeating proscribed conduct, or to punish them for engaging in it in the first place. Believe it or not, there are even cases in which those laws have actually accomplished what they were designed to accomplish.
So we all might be surprised by what can be achieved by rules prohibiting racially-motivated conduct, including racially-motivated words, in a school setting, and by rules isolating student offenders to prevent further harm or to punish them for harm already caused. We all might be surprised by what a real zero-tolerance policy in a school setting will accomplish, even without equity directors and high-sounding programs and endless conversation.
Has consideration been given to expulsion of a student on even the first occasion of conduct or words that are fundamentally racist? Have other forms of isolation of such a student been seriously considered? There can be severe consequences for a student who just talks about bringing a weapon to school. But are that student’s words more dangerous, more damaging, more disruptive to a school environment than words that target and demean a specific group of students in order to prevent them from participating in the school society?
A true zero-tolerance policy certainly will generate the “fire,” the “thunder,” the “storm,” the “whirlwind,” the “earthquake” that Douglass was looking for, and that the NAACP seems to be afraid of. But, alas, the “whirlwind” that such a policy will engender is precisely the very reason that a meaningful zero-tolerance strategy will never exist, even if a school is willing to maneuver through Vermont’s maze of constraints on expulsions and suspensions.
At this point, however, people can only await, with or without bated breath, the positive outcomes, if any there be, sought by the “light” and the “gentle shower,” eschewed by Douglass, of incessant meetings and constant discussion designed to change what people choose to believe. It is likely to lead nowhere without the “whirlwind” of swift and determined action by schools to eliminate racist conduct and language.