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Racism's alive and well in Monroe County 

This community has spent a lot of time fighting racism. We’ve had multiple big initiatives and events, the most recent one this past Friday: the Stand Against Racism march organized by the YWCA.

Meantime, racism is thriving. The latest examples: racial slurs in Pittsford schools, a stunningly mishandled Black History Month project in a Pittsford elementary school, and a flabbergastingly clueless response by white adults.

click to enlarge A participant in the YWCA's Stand Against Racism march. - PHOTO BY JAMES BROWN, WXXI
  • A participant in the YWCA's Stand Against Racism march.
This isn’t just a problem in Pittsford. We know about these particular incidents thanks to reporting by the Democrat and Chronicle’s Justin Murphy and WXXI’s Evan Dawson.

Murphy’s report tells of black elementary and high school students being called the N-word, a Korean child being mocked for his looks, white students joking about nooses. The mother of an elementary school child who had been called the N-word by four different students tells of holding her sobbing child on her lap; “now, for him,” she said, “going into that building will never be the same.”

And Murphy quoted a black teenager who had repeatedly been called the N-word by a white track team member: “She said she was hurt not just by her teammate's slur, but also by other students who later jokingly retold the story in ‘angry black woman voice.’”

A group of parents had asked Pittsford Superintendent Mike Pero and the Pittsford school board “to issue a public statement against racism,” Murphy wrote. Instead, Pero wrote a more general letter to district families, “asking parents to ‘talk with your child about the importance of respecting their peers.’”

Dawson’s report for WXXI focuses on a Black History Month project in which a fifth-grade class created posters celebrating African American inventors. Some of the posters showed photos of white men, however, not the inventors themselves. A photo of President Andrew Johnson – a good example of a racist president – illustrates a poster about Powell Johnson, the inventor of protective eyewear used by firefighters and other people exposed to intense light.

The posters were displayed – for several weeks – in a school hallway. Nobody noticed the errors. Not the teacher whose class created them, not other adults in the building.

And when Dawson asked Pero about the posters, Pero didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of the situation (not to mention showing a peculiar attitude about scholastic accuracy). The objective of the Black History poster project “was a real positive one,” Pero told Dawson. The students weren’t being graded on their posters, he said, so the teacher didn’t check every one.

District and school officials had talked about the problem, he told Dawson, and had worked with school staff “to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

And that was that. “Pero said the issue was handled,” Dawson reported, “the project would not be revisited, and the information on the posters would not be corrected. He says he was concerned that the issue was becoming too political, and teachers would be afraid to teach this material in the future.”

Pittsford parents have asked for a public forum on race, Dawson reported. “Pero says that would not be constructive at this time,” Dawson said.

It’s obvious that Pittsford school officials missed an important educational opportunity, on several levels. But the officials’ behavior also exposes a larger problem. Reluctance to call racism by its name, concern about how white teachers will feel, concern that a forum on racism is "political": This is systemic racism – quiet, subtle, and very, very damaging.

We’re sure not making much progress against racism here in the Community of Monroe.

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