Times - Asheville NC
February 5, 1999
Good morning, Buncombe County Board of Education.
Here are your lessons for the day in Reality 101.
No. 1: Can you spell polarized?
No. 2: Can you use the terms Justice Department, non-discrimination violations, federal funding reductions and investigation in the same sentence?
No. 3: Do you know what "object of nationwide ridicule" means?
No. 4: Do you understand the difference in the terms "providing public service" and "seeking political cover?"
No. 5: Do you know how much taxpayer money will be required to pay expensive lawyers to argue a complicated case for months or even years?
No. 6: Finally, upon entering a tunnel and seeing light in the distance, do you interpret this as:
a) light at the end of the tunnel; or
b) a fast-moving freight train?
It is important that the leaders of Buncombe's education system know the right answers. If they don't, the consequences could be dire for the county's students, residents and national image.
Let's start with the students at Erwin High, where the use of "Squaws" and "Warriors" as school mascots is the centerpiece of an official inquiry by the U.S Department of Justice into possible violations of federal anti discrimination law. The students themselves appear to be the most aggrieved parties in this matter. Last year, the school board assured students that they would decide whether to retain the controversial mascot names or select new ones. Now, the school board itself will make the call on Erwin's mascot names.
Many students now are confused and upset about all the commotion. And who can blame them? All around them, presumably mature adult role models are waffling, threatening, posturing and, in general, acting like immature preschoolers.
One has to feel particular empathy for Erwin seniors, the class of 1999. What should be the very best year of their lives - senior year - has been disrupted, perhaps beyond repair, by events and decisions they cannot control. At a time when Erwin seniors should be talking excitedly with best friends about grades, dates, games, teachers, cars trips, vacation, clothes, movies, parties and college - you know, all the things we did in our senior years - they are confronted daily by controversy and adults with agendas.
But all Erwin students are being victimized no less than the seniors. The mascot issue could have been used as an opportunity to help students grow and become more sensitive to diversity. Instead, they are now being subjected to the polarizing pressures and attitudes of their parents, Erwin alumni and self-interested outsiders. The school board and all adults should be doing everything they can to prevent the next generation from suffering from the insensitivity, the blind spots and, in some cases, the outright bigotry of preceding generations.
This is more than just feel-good rhetoric. The world that Erwin students and all others are entering is becoming more and more diverse. Parents should understand that their children will live and work in a world economy in which they will come in contact with people from many ethnic groups. To be successful, they will need the sensitivity to treat all those people with the understanding and respect.
By stubbornly clinging to symbols from another people's culture - symbols that members of that culture consider to be offensive and demeaning - parents and other adults are encouraging a callousness that will handicap their children and greatly diminish their opportunities in the future.
The school board plans to meet with students and the community to explain the scope of the issues the board faces. If the board uses these meetings to point the finger at the federal government in the hope of persuading the students and the community that they have no choice but to change the name because an investigation could cost half a million dollars in legal fees, they will have failed abysmally at rising to the challenge before them.
The board MUST take responsibility
for changing the mascot name because it is the right thing to do .
It must have the courage to explain to the community that for a public
school system to appropriate icons from any culturally distinct group in
a way that group finds insulting is to display an arrogant disrespect that
makes people who belong to that group feed disenfranchised.
Board members have declined to say how they will vote on the issue, saying they want to "listen to the community" and that declaring a position in advance of that would circumvent the process. Most people in the community probably already have a pretty good grasp on the issues. They know the stakes have changed. Keeping the mascots now could cost the entire school system, not just the Erwin district, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Is there any doubt what is going to happen as the school board's plan unfolds? Political Science 101 says that there will be angry, impassioned speeches, posturing about heritage, local rights and political correctness, and probably even threats of recall.
And then the Buncombe County School Board will make the only decision it can make, the decision it should have made in the first place. Bu how it makes that decision will have long-term ramifications for members of the Erwin community and especially for the students who are watching to see how the grown-ups will handle this one.