The Conflicting Rules of Race Trip Up a Principal's Tongue

By Marc Fisher
Tuesday, January 9, 2007

After a bunch of kids fought outside Churchill High School in Potomac last week, the police caught them and they were charged with assault and various other infractions. So far, so good.

Then Churchill's principal, Joan Benz, sent parents a letter describing what had happened and what she planned to do about it. That's when a fight among teenagers over a boy-girl relationship gone sour -- the oldest story in the book -- became a particularly modern kind of mess.

Knowing that schools are classic incubators of rumor, Benz followed her admirable instinct: Get the details out accurately and quickly. In her letter, she spelled out the events that led to the fight, the police response, the evidence of gang involvement and the new policies the school has adopted.

But then Benz got defensive: "A small group of students have changed our educational climate," she wrote. "The many behavioral interventions I've put into place for these students have not assisted them to make good choices."

Benz knew that many Churchill parents were talking about the fact that the kids in the fight were black, as are only 6 percent of the school's students. The principal, trying to address that chatter head-on, stumbled over the murky, contradictory rules that govern language in our oh-so-sensitive times.

Probably something felt wrong -- too blunt, too raw -- about writing, as Benz did, that "every incident revolving around this two month ordeal has been Black-on-Black violence." So she tried to add balance to her letter, noting that "the SAT mean scores for our African-American students [have] risen an amazing 203 points. . . ."

Benz's awkward attempt at smoothing out the news drew an instant and furious response. Some people thought she was wrong to mention race because it would allow white parents to conclude that this was not their concern or foster a poor image for all black students at Churchill. Others thought she was wrong to point to race when the real divide at Churchill is one of class.

Truth is, Benz fell into an all-too-common trap in this era of unwritten rules about language and race.

Increasingly -- and happily -- we talk about admirable acts without resorting to categorizing people by race. In New York last week, when Wesley Autrey wowed the nation by leaping to the rescue of a stricken man who had fallen in front of an oncoming subway train, the hero's race was generally accepted to be immaterial. I checked 273 news stories written about Autrey's heroics, and only two mentioned that he is black. What he did was essentially and beautifully human; injecting race would only diminish the act.

But when someone behaves poorly, things get confusing. The tributes to President Gerald Ford reminded us that nobody raised the alarm on white women when two of them separately tried to kill him in the '70s. Yet almost anytime the paper reports on a violent crime committed by a black person, I get e-mails from readers alleging that The Washington Post failed to specify the bad guy's race because we seek to suppress public awareness of high crime rates among blacks. (Our rule is simple: We report a suspect's race or ethnicity if it's relevant to the crime -- an act of bigotry, for example -- or as part of a specific physical description that could help police catch the offender.)

At Churchill, Benz rushed to apologize. "I did not intend to single out one group of students in a negative light," she wrote the next morning. "I value each and every student. . . . Churchill is a safe school. . . . I am sorry that my initial letter caused hurt to members of the Churchill community." Benz's apology read like she'd been packed off to reeducation camp.

What's missing is any recognition that singling out black students for praise is as problematic as fingering them for criticism, even if praise is more pleasant. The achievements of black students have no more to do with the fight in front of the building than do the activities of the school's Young Intellectuals or Advanced Motor Sports clubs.

The kids who scored well on the SAT did so because each of them worked hard and made smart choices when confronted with the strains of adolescence. The kids who fought in front of school did so for any number of reasons. Perhaps some could point to racial discrimination as a root of their aggression. But in neither the good news nor the bad is the students' race automatically the cause of their behavior.

When five Whitman High students held up a Bethesda Smoothie King at gunpoint in the spring, nobody thought to mention the kids' race. In Texas this fall, when the wayward activities of a high school's cheerleading squad -- boozing, posing for sleazy photos, defying teachers -- led to the resignation of the principal, again no one mentioned race.

Those students were white; somehow, in those cases, the authorities knew what to say.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company