Thursday, April 22, 2021

Md. county, schools confront racism & bigotry


COLUMBIA, Md. (Dec. 3) — Howard County Executive Allan H Kittleman convened a community forum this afternoon to discuss and listen to different viewpoints concerning racism and bigotry and, he hopes, to eventually move officials in the county and school system toward useful action to reduce the level of hatred county residents feel and show toward each other.

“I’ll tell you, this is great to see,” Mr Kittleman said in kicking off the panel discussion. “This is not what we see on social media sometimes, but this is Howard County. … I hear the concerns people have, and I share them. But when I think about this, I think, this is what we believe in. This is what we’re all about.”

But, he said, “It is a disservice to those individuals who worked so hard to make sure we had a community that was inviting and welcoming and loving that we have to be here today. I am frustrated by that, just like you are.”

David Anderson speaks as Mr Kittleman listens. (Voxitatis)

The initiative has adopted the hashtag #OneHoward, because “we come together all as one,” said Barbara Sands, director of the Howard County Office of Human Rights, after acknowledging several members of the board of education and other officials in attendance. “We all came today, trying to find an answer and trying to be heard and trying to alleviate our problems.

“I believe that, as we come together with our differences, we have joined,” she said. “And I believe we can make a difference. … It’s limited what you can do as one, but as a whole, it is unlimited what you can do.”

Speakers also stressed unity while acknowledging the challenges. James LeMon, principal of Wilde Lake High School in Columbia:

Until I got to Wilde Lake, I don’t think even I realized how diverse that school was. There’s over 70 different cultures in our building. It’s a very diverse community. Whether it’s culturally or economically, we’re just a very diverse school. The strength of our building, of Wilde Lake, is our diversity; our kids’ll tell you that.

And I always say to anyone that asks, “Our kids make it work.” Our students at Wilde Lake High School, they make it work.

Also, going back, some things have happened. When events happen in the country or in the county, it impacts all of our students. Even if it didn’t happen in the schools, we feel it in the schools. A year and a half ago, an event happened in Baltimore, the unrest there. We felt it at the school. We felt it at Wilde Lake High School.

Our goal is to make sure we’re always communicating with our students. Their voice is so very important. We had planned something, when that happened in Baltimore, for them to have a chance to talk about their feelings. Because, again, a lot of our students have family there. Their parents work down there. It impacts every school and every student. I’m very aware of it, and our staff does an outstanding job.

After some of the recent events, you can feel it in any building, and you definitely can feel it in our building. With some of the feelings our students had after the election, some of them came to me. They came to my office in tears.

Some of our students are undocumented. [The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that with Donald Trump’s election, college students able to stay in the US because of DACA now fear that their status in this country may be in jeopardy.]

And these are things that I don’t think a lot of people understand. And it’s real. It impacts our kids. So we actually came up with a plan for the Monday after the election, for our kids to get together with our staff. We had a student voice opportunity, and we had about 80 participating students and our staff. It was fascinating—the feedback our students had.

It doesn’t mean everyone had the same opinion about how things were going, but it was such a respectful opportunity. And I think that’s key: Even when we have differences, we need to be able to understand that that’s OK. We need to be able to work together to make it a workable situation for all.

Two panelists talk with Maryam Elhabashy (left) prior to the meeting. (Voxitatis)

Maryam Elhabashy, a senior at Centennial High School in Ellicott City:

As youth we often feel entitled to a free pass when we make mistakes by virtue of our fledgling adult status. We only get to sow the seeds of our youth for a few years anyway, right? And so we promise that we’re going to do better when we’re older.

But I argue this is a pretty big cop-out. I argue that we’re more powerful than we give ourselves credit for. And I argue that we’re better than that. Or are we?

We have to ask ourselves, How much time is being wasted spreading hateful language and disdain? And to what end?

Then we should ask, What can we achieve instead—if we allotted the same amount of time toward something that was positive and unifying?

You have to admit it takes courage and will to harass someone or to vandalize someone’s property or to spread hateful comments. Someone really has to have guts of steel and malicious intent to engage in these types of activities. Can you imagine how powerful that person might be if they refocused their courage and will to celebrate others instead of disparaging them?

Rabbi Craig Axler of Temple Isaiah spoke after Ms Elhabashy, saying he was sure the next generation has rejected the old divisions and hatreds. Then Imam Dr Maqbool Patel of the Islamic Society of Baltimore spoke and brought the message that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all came from the same roots. “If you really want to experience the most diverse group in the nation, come and visit the Islamic Society of Baltimore,” he said. “The primary duty of a Muslim is to use his or her intellect and aspire to a peaceful life that is free of anger, hatred, violence, greed, in order to pursue the higher truth of God’s universe.”

Finally, David Anderson, pastor at Bridgeway Community Church, showed a video of himself having a moving conversation with a student at Oakland Mills High School in Columbia who is facing disciplinary action from the school district for a picture she took of herself that got distributed, by another student, via social media. The girl says in the video that she is unable to attend school on account of the many threats she received after the photo got posted.

Tensions mounted as he played the video, which calls for forgiveness for the girl who shot the original photo. It was racist, but she claims her intention wasn’t to hurt anyone, despite her appearance in blackface and her use of a racial epithet. A woman stood up and asked that the video be shut off, saying it was hypocritical to give an audience to the student who caused the hate to spread and not to the students she hurt by doing it. The whole #OneHoward idea is “just on the surface,” she said.

The point, of course, is that we should be focusing not on the wrong the girl did but on the hurt she caused in her fellow human beings. We should focus not on forgiveness, although that’s an important step in the process, but on repairing both the hurt caused among black students and the cause of the white girl’s hurtful behavior. Only by the white girl understanding the pain she caused, through deep conversations with the actual people she hurt, can we truly address the root causes of racism and bigotry. Here’s an opportunity, as she seems truly sorry.

Restorative justice, one community member explained, puts the focus on the harm done to students, not by having a calm conversation between a church pastor and a “perpetrator,” as the girl was called by many in attendance, but by having a facilitated conversation, or “circle,” between the girl and a person her racist actions had wronged.

Many community members spoke up at the forum, calling on school officials to expel students who threaten others with hateful speech, but Howard County Schools Superintendent Renee Foose said suspending or expelling students wasn’t really a complete answer. “We can suspend students, but we can’t eradicate the hate that they’re feeling,” she said. That will take more—say, from families and other community members—than schools alone can provide.

Racist behaviors have been documented in Howard County since at least 1996 and continue today, but the county isn’t so different from many other communities across America.

Latent or hidden tendencies in, unfortunately, groups of people who tend not to come to community forums that discuss racism, have been emboldened to come out of hiding by the campaign run by Donald Trump, a few community members noted in the question-and-answer portion. However, knowing different people personally and educating oneself in other cultures can go a long way toward easing the hate, and with that in mind, communities are calling for forums like this one in many places across the country (Connecticut, Michigan, Boston).

The issues at each of those forums are local, hyper-local even, but the questions everyone is asking are exactly the same. The big question, though, is this: While we take a few steps back to study the problem, what proactive steps can be taken to address hatred many US citizens have for “other” people? And when will that be?

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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