This post was updated December 16, 2011.
America is forever looking for the one thing that finally lets us put our past and all of its ugliness behind us. The latest example is at the Fuqua School, which was founded nearly a half century ago to resist desegregation.
It was not until the 1980s that the school accepted its first black student, and even then, the school was viewed by black residents as a “segregation academy.”
And it appears with very good reason. In a piece that, in theory, was meant to show how far the institution has come since its founding, the school went out and recruited a black quarterback, freshman Charles Williams, to be its standard-bearer in the black community.
They gave him free tuition in exchange for him telling their story.
A couple of questions: Why did the standard-bearer need to be good in sports rather than academics? Doesn’t that just perpetuate yet another stereotype?
Okay, let’s say it was an oversight. Some folks just don’t know any better. But when describing her initial meeting with the young Mr. Williams, school president Ruth Murphy told The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff: “Here was this big, strong guy. He was only 14, but he looked like a 25-year-old drug dealer.”
Murphy later explained to Sieff that she meant to convey how mature he was. But you can best believe that she wouldn’t have referred to an equally mature-looking white student as a drug dealer. Is that what she thinks of all black people? And isn’t that perhaps why her school still has an image as a racist institution?
Perhaps it was an honest mistake, but even if it was, would you feel comfortable leaving your child in the hands of an adult who looked at them and initially thought “criminal.”
In the aftermath of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, parents sent their young people into harm’s way before mobs of whites not because they wanted them to sit next to white children. Instead, these parents were painfully aware that their tax dollars were all being siphoned to support schools that their children weren’t allowed to attend.
And they were afraid for their sons and daughters, particularly in small towns, because violence could strike at a moment’s notice. There was often no recourse, because the perpetrators and the law were often one and the same.
Much has happened since then, to be sure. Not the least of which is that a black man and his family now inhabit the White House. To get to that point, people who had been battered into the ground stood up and said “No more.”
And lots of good people recognized that they shouldn’t, or couldn’t, hold on to the most hateful parts of our past. Which brings us back to the Fuqua School, founded in 1959 in defiance of the order to desegregate. Like many districts across the South, the county closed its public schools for several years to avoid complying.
“That history left deep scars,” Murphy told The Post. “In the black community, it made it very hard to see Fuqua as being anything other than racist.”
Clearly, she gets that part of the story. And clearly the school is trying. Its goal, it seems, is to change the minds of black people. Many white people wrongly believe that when black people talk about racism they are harkening back to the days of slavery or Jim Crow or even the civil rights movement.
In reality, they are pushing back against a present-day mind-set that seeks to keep them down. It’s more subtle (most times) than the South of our past. So, yes, Fuqua officials are reaching out, and some black families are responding by enrolling their children in the “white” school.
But even the well-meaning have to continue to check their own thoughts for the vestiges of a past they thought they left behind. We still have a long way to go when the leader of a school looks into the eyes of a 14-year-old boy and automatically thinks “drug dealer.”
Read more on The Root DC