Opinion: Kids pay the price for adults’ failures to act against racism

According to the Times, one student, Jimmy Galligan, shared in June 2020 a three-second Snapchat video of his classmate, Mimi Groves, using a racial slur. Groves had first sent the video message to a friend in 2016 when she was 15 and had just gotten her learner’s permit. In the video, she looks into the camera and says, “I can drive, [racial slur].”

Someone shared it with Galligan a few years later, when both he and Groves were seniors. Galligan kept the video and after Groves had chosen a college, he posted the video publicly. As he later described it to the Times, the video “taught someone a lesson.”

Shortly after Galligan posted the video, Groves’ acceptance to the University of Tennessee’s cheer team was revoked. According to the Times, under pressure from their students, alumni and the public, the university encouraged Groves to withdraw, which she did.

Groves told the Times that the clip began as a private message and that she is “disgusted” that such a word came out of her mouth. “At the time,” she said, “I didn’t understand the severity of the word, or the history and context behind it, because I was so young.”

Galligan has said he does not regret his actions. Their story has drawn an uproar of commentary in response, especially on social media, and among other media outlets, some referring to Galligan as “vindictive” for his lack of regret about the consequences Groves has faced. The Times has also come under criticism for amplifying the story.

This story comes at a time when many schools, like other public institutions, are struggling to address their failures to address systemic racism. And while a very public outing and shaming of a few students here and there might offer some sense of justice, it, unfortunately, lets too many students, parents and educators — really the whole community — off the hook.

Too often, finding offenders and outing them becomes the focus, instead of how the adults — the educators and parents — can support Black, indigenous and students of color and give all students a thoughtful education. It allows too many communities to smugly point fingers and not to look at themselves.

One problem with making someone like Groves emblematic of broader racism harbored within an institution is that it risks absolving others of examining their own behaviors. It makes her the exception, instead of recognizing what she said as a symptom of the prevailing climate at her school and in her school district.

When Galligan posted the video on social media, in May 2019, both he and Groves were seniors and had spent four years steeped in the culture of Heritage High School in Leesburg, Virginia, which students of color there say was, as the Times described it, “rife with racial insensitivity, including casual uses of slurs.”
The Loudoun County school district — one of the wealthiest counties in the country — commissioned a report, presented to the superintendent in June 2019, which showed a pattern of students and teachers using racial slurs widely and disproportionate disciplinary measures meted out to White and Black students, who spoke of their “growing sense of despair” that “racist events, large and small, are ignored and school leaders do not believe their reports of mistreatment.”
After the report published, the district released a plan to fight systemic racism and issued a formal apology for the district’s history of segregation. In June 2020, the school board also put out a statement following the death of George Floyd affirming their commitment to a “safe, empathetic, respectful, and supporting learning environment for every student,” acknowledging that Loudoun County “is not immune” from the effects of systemic racism and noting that “even as we work for positive change, we recognize that harm is done by racist and hate-filled statements and acts.”
Heritage High School officials did not respond to the Times’ requests for interviews.

Galligan, whose mother is Black and father is White, told The New York Times that he and other students had endured years of racist harassment. When students like Galligan and classmate Muna Barry (also quoted in the Times sharing her experiences as a Black student) are in the position where reporting racism doesn’t bring about real change, educators have failed.

Loudoun County may be notable for the previous failures of some of their educators to lead by example. Unfortunately, they are not alone. Too many high schools are unsafe environments where students who are targeted for their racial identity are left to fend for themselves. It should surprise no one to see young people wielding their skills on social media as a weapon or a shield when they have been otherwise ignored.
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Students at many predominantly White private high schools and colleges across the United States, and at some public schools, have shared on Instagram examples of racism from other students as well as their teachers. Many of these conversations focus on students and alumni supporting one another, and validating the difficult experiences they have gone through.

School leaders who have not already done so should take a long hard look at these Instagram accounts, which detail painful experiences of social exclusion, overt racism and academic discrimination. Real change requires more than just discipline for the offenders. Schools need to proactively teach anti-racism without doing more harm — which means they need training in the best methods to do so.

In addition to incorporating anti-racist teaching into the curriculum, schools must hold young people accountable for racist actions in the immediate setting where they occur and later offer a thoughtfully planned restorative process that offers a chance for students to learn, heal and understand the impact of their actions.

It is especially important for students who have been targeted to be heard and to be able to participate in the restorative process in a way that prioritizes their safety.

Finding the student who is imprudent about using a slur on social media focuses all the anger on that student. What about the student who anonymously leaves a note in a locker? What about the student who keeps other kids off the team? What about the kids who quietly make it so uncomfortable for “outsiders” that some extracurricular activity is completely closed to kids of a certain ethnic group, religion or gender? What about a school counselor who systematically counsels Black students away from AP or honors classes?

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Another challenge with “canceling” someone for racial ignorance, particularly in a case like Groves, who expressed deep regret for her behavior, is where do they go? How do they move forward? As the Times story points out, Groves posted in support of Black Lives Matter as a senior and yet had used the N-word as a 9th grader. (A Black friend of Groves told the Times Groves had apologized about the offensive post long before it went viral. The friend defended Groves in a Snapchat post: “We’re supposed to educate people, not ruin their lives all because you want to feel a sense of empowerment.”)

A true education in racial inequity would help any young teen understand how the word and the system that produced it have destroyed Black lives before things ever got to this point and help them reckon with the both the reality of White privilege and their role in it.

College can be a time for kids with White privilege to ask hard questions about how we live and the history of housing discrimination that produced environments like Loudoun County and countless other communities in America. And about the ways that racism stokes fears that can put their Black classmates’ lives at risk.

A lot of the reaction to the Times story has focused on the cost to Groves for something she did at 15: admission to her dream college and sports goals she’d pursued for years.

Of course, community college, which Groves now attends, can offer a chance to learn about White privilege, too. But it might have been a great learning opportunity for Groves to leave home and to live somewhere else for a bit. When I taught first year students at DePaul University, I witnessed and encouraged this process with students in a new environment, reckoning with what they thought they knew, firsthand.

The University of Tennessee told local media that Groves withdrew voluntarily. Her lawyer (who is also a CNN legal analyst) contested that characterization, saying she was forced to withdraw or her offer of admission would be rescinded. The case does nothing to change the wider culture of racism on college campuses. That change will take a lot more work than singling out one student.

Educators and parents need to focus on character over consequences. When a very few kids receive an outsized consequence and many others escape notice, the message can all too easily become a smug “see we got that racist over there” — or, worse “don’t get caught” — instead of “examine your bias” and “do the right thing.”

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