The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, January 23, 2004

Apartheid rules on Martin Luther King Day

The immigrant's eternal cry of joy: Only in America!...

Via Kimberley Swygert, a story that should, if there were any justice, find its way to the US Supreme Court. (There isn't, of course; but, even if there were, justice would lead to Justice O'Connor, the Walking Oxymoron. So what's the diff?):

Omaha, NE is, notoriously, the home of Boys Town [1], and, therefore, indirect begetter of that cinematic abortion starring Spencer Tracy. Things are a little more cosmopolitan these days, and the city hosts, amongst others, refugees from the 'New' South Africa, Karen Richards and her son Trevor, student at Westside High School.

According to a story (January 21) in the Omaha World-Herald, the school apparently offers a
Distinguished African American Student Award,
voted for by the students. And Trevor and his buds decided - 'tis the season - to get him some publicity for his campaign to win that award: he's from Africa, and he's American [2] - with a postering operation all over the school on Monday.

The authorities were not amused:
The posters were removed by administrators because they were "inappropriate and insensitive," Westside spokeswoman Peggy Rupprecht said Tuesday.

Why? The piece says
The posters...included a picture of the junior student smiling and giving a thumbs up. The posters encouraged votes for him.

No burning crosses, then. So why
inappropriate and insensitive?

Trevor had crossed the color line! He had sat down at the black lunch-counter.

Because, in today's world of reverse Jim Crow,
...the award always has been given to black students.

Note always has been: not part of the rules, just custom and practice. That any dumb white boy should have known, or guessed.

Trevor and two others were disciplined for the poster-sticking; and
A fourth student...was punished for circulating a petition Tuesday morning in support of the boys. The petition criticized the practice of recognizing only black student achievement with the award.

Trevor and his friends, in a word, were uppity. Quite how much grievancing went on, I'm not clear: the piece says that
Westside has fewer than 70 blacks out of 1,843 students this year.

But my impression is that the authorities' action was pre-emptive. Perhaps they feared the reaction of their colleagues elsewhere in the city. Perhaps they were jealous that a mere boy had dared to challenge where they did not. Perhaps they suspected it was some kind of test of litigation risk awareness from the school board [3].

Well, good luck with that! Because the suggestion from Eugene Volokh (linked by Kimberley) is that a First Amendment challenge is very much possible, citing Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Comm. School Dist, the black arm-bands case.

Now, I've seen one or two TV movies, so I've a fair idea at the grief Trev and his mates would be in for if they decided to vindicate their First Amendment rights. It's a small(ish) city. Do any of their parents rely on public contracts for their livelihood's, for instance? Or do they have businesses with customers that might get put off by NAACP pickets? Are their city taxes in order?

(I think you see where I'm going here.)

On the other hand, to do the stunt in the first place - and the petition afterwards - shows fighting spirit.

(There's a piece in Atlantic Monthly on the achievement gap in schools between boys and girls. One theory is the boys need a contest with winners and loser to excite their interest - they need to be told to kick the girls' asses! Whereas today's feminised education is all about cooperation and sensitivity.

Now these fine young Nebraskans have the opportunity for the right sort of fight - with words and laws, rather than guns and knives - and GA Henty and Horatio Alger collaborating on the script!)

And - on second thoughts - O'Connor will have gone West (one way or the other) by the time the case got to Washington...

  1. Imagine a Catholic priest nowadays wanting to set up a whole town for just boys - he'd be getting jailhouse justice Bill Lockyer-style before his feet could touch the ground...

  2. I'm assuming that last part.

  3. Did they consult the local chapter of the NAACP, like the folks at the Columbus East High School over their planned production of To Kill A Mockingbird (December 5)?


On the journalistic side, there are one or two puzzling points in the World-Herald piece:

The first graf talks about the kids wanting Trevor to get the award
next year

Now, that presumably means next calendar year, or next school year - rather a long time away.

Then, it says that the posters
The posters encouraged votes
which would logically support the idea that the award was voted for by the students - a sort of May Queen thing.

But in the sixth graf down, it says
Westside Assistant Principal Pat Hutchings said the award has been given for eight years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to a senior selected by teachers.

Which contradicts both points: that the award is by student choice, and was to be awarded next year.

A Poor Man's Nexis dump produces one AP story . This says that
The award has been given the last eight years to an outstanding black student as part of the school's Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, she said.

Nothing about whether it's students or the administration who choose who wins.

According to 2002-2003 state statistics, 56 Of Westside's 1,632 students are black.

Why couldn't the World-Herald hack have got that?

And there's a piece on KCCI site, with a screencap of the poster. Yay, progress!

The poster consists of, in the top half, a dreadful, photobooth photo of Trev, thumb up; in the bottom half, the following legend (more or less):

Next Year (handwritten in marker-pen)

Support Trevor Richards

for Highest Achieving

African American* Student


*He's from South Africa!

My guess is: there is no vote. The guys saw something about the award, and one of them said, Hey, Trev, you're from Africa, why shouldn't you be in the running?

Whereupon mischief and righteous indignation combined to produce what occurred: a massive over-reaction on the part of the authorities, and Trev getting his fifteen minutes.

Whereas a wise and confident administration would have taken them to one side and explained the facts of life under reverse Jim Crow, and even sought politic ways they might subvert it. A little.

And again with the Apartheid race classification nonsense! Who said an African had to be black? The World-Herald piece quoted Trevor's mother as saying that Trevor had friends from Egypt: that, last time I looked, was in Africa. And folks from Egypt come in all shades. Quite a few could pass, most, I suspect, could not.

Where does the Race Classification Board at Westside High draw the line between Africans who are African, and those who are not? Perhaps there is a chart such as one uses to choose shades of paint that can be provided.

If they're properly advised, and don't overplay their hand, I reckon those boys have a lot of fun to had with bozos as dumb as the Westside High bosses.

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