On the day that America pauses to honor the memory and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the ACLU of Michigan asks the federal government to investigate and eradicate racial discrimination and harassment in a Western Michigan school district. In a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), the ACLU accuses Paw Paw Public Schools of maintaining an educational environment that discriminates against students and others on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity and national origin.
In Paw Paw, school officials have deferred Dr. King’s dream of a day when children of all races, colors and creeds will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers. The school district even brands its high school sports teams with the racial slur “Redskins.” In recent years demands by Native Americans and their supporters to abandon the offensive reference have been met with intense hostility. For example, after a school board meeting about the issue, one citizen said: “I was approached by a resident who was punched in the face because she was in favor of the change [of the ‘Redskins’ name] and made this public prior to the meeting.” When the ACLU of Michigan made its concerns known to the school district’s administrators, and also encouraged the school district to use the services of an ACLU-inspired coalition of non-profit service agencies to facilitate racial healing and reconciliation, there was no response.
The ACLU then used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain a substantial number of school district records that betray the widespread racially toxic climate in the schools. One document alleges that students placed a swastika and a small Hitler figurine in the basket of another student’s model hot air balloon science project. In response to a complaint the teacher allegedly described the swastika as ‘artistic.’ One report states: ‘Tuesday coming back from lunch, [name deleted] pushed another student and called him the N word.’ Another report states: ‘…[name deleted] came to me yesterday and wanted to talk to me about how he was feeling after the election. Yesterday afternoon he told me he had been hearing racist remarks from other students such as ‘Trump’s in the house,’ ‘Go back to Mexico,’ ‘Go back to your country now and pick blueberries.’ Still another report states: ‘Use of a racial slur, directed at a classmate. Called him a ‘f---ing n***er.’
Because racial tension in Paw Paw is so thick, many victims of racial hostility and their allies have been intimidated into silence. There have nevertheless been efforts by a few persistent individuals and groups to at least rid the school district of its racist symbolism. When the Paw Paw school board responded to Native Americans and their allies by voting to retain the racial slur, it did so with the qualification that the offensive term would be used unless and until it caused the school district to lose tax dollars. The ACLU of Michigan’s OCR complaint asserts that the racially hostile educational environment in the school district violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Under that law, federal funds cannot be used to support entities that violate the statute by engaging in racial discrimination. Although an OCR finding of discrimination could result in the suspension of federal funding for the school district, the ACLU of Michigan has instead urged a “voluntary resolution agreement,” because efforts to fight bigotry are generally more successful when needed changes are not forced.
There may be those who believe that racial prejudices are too deeply entrenched to be dislodged by dialogue and education. They may also suggest waiting until the general evolution of racial attitudes makes voluntary racial reform more feasible. However, racial attitudes do not progressively evolve on their own. If left alone, they deteriorate into an ever more toxic cesspool of hatred. So, it is important to act. As Dr. King said so well in 1963: “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children."