Professor at OPRF meeting: 'You have a race problem'

A Nov. 14 meeting on race at OPRF puts racism at center of dialogue

November 15th, 2017 5:14 PM

'WHAT HAS BEEN OWED?': Audience members respond during the public comment portion of the Nov. 14 meeting at OPRF. | Photo by Paul Guyette

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

At least 300 people packed Oak Park and River Forest High School's south cafeteria Nov. 14 to hear a panel of four students share their everyday experiences at the high school — where panelist Grace Gunn, a junior who is African-American, said she "feels like I constantly have to defend my value."

Gunn's testimony was reinforced by her three co-panelists, all of whom attested to a climate at OPRF in which minority students feel constantly assaulted by low expectations in the classroom, racial slurs mouthed often by white students in the hallways and racially biased disciplinary actions meted out by teachers and security guards, among other aggressions.

During Tuesday's meeting, Dr. David Stovall, who provided a roughly 30-minute keynote before the student panelists spoke, recommended that the school separate the immediate crisis that spawned the meeting from the systemic issues of racism that permeate OPRF's school community.

"Yeah, somebody was on social media posting blackface, people got upset," he said. "I am not as concerned about that," said Stovall, an associate professor of educational policy studies and African-American studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. "My concern is are we in a structure that says that that's normal, right and good. Are we in a structure that says, 'Oh, kids will be kids'"?

Stovall said the school should focus on a definition of equity that emphasizes "what has been taken from students who have been instantaneously deemed a problem."

"When you talk about equity, you have to think about a word that becomes fearful to districts and leadership — redistribution," he said. "If we are talking about equity, we can no longer talk about who is getting what under what terms. You have to be clear about who has been denied historically. I don't talk about an education gap. What has been owed to students who have been historically disenfranchised? Something has been taken."

Kennedy Holliday, a student panelist who is a senior at OPRF, said that she lost a sense of comfort and ease in her own skin when she moved to Oak Park from nearby Maywood. She said that as a black woman at OPRF, she's grown used to backhanded compliments about her articulateness or clumsy reassurances from her white peers that she need not worry about getting into the college of her choice because of affirmation action.

Angeles Contreras, another student panelist, was raised in Cicero before moving to River Forest in the sixth grade. Her parents made the move so that she could get a better education, she said. The move, however, came with serious tradeoffs.

"My culture has really lost its meaning," Contreras said, before recalling an experience during Cinco de Mayo, when one OPRF teacher, feeling festive, encouraged students to celebrate by referencing sombreros and tacos. When Contreras told the teacher that her actions were racially insensitive, the teacher, Contreras recalled, got offended at the mere suggestion that racism could be in play.

Drew Krueger, an OPRF senior, and the only male and only white student on the panel, described, in frank terms, an environment where white students feel accepted and welcomed and minority students feel, and are treated in some ways, as alien. 

"I'm white and I live in Oak Park — I feel welcome," Krueger said. "That's the reality and the norm.

The meeting, which was moderated by two resolution specialists with the U.S. Department of Justice, ended by audience members offering possible solutions and comments.

Some audience members wondered why there aren't more African American males teaching in the classrooms (with a few lamenting the absence of a black male student on the panel) while others demanded that African American history be included in the range of courses, such as American History, that students are required, or at least strongly encouraged, to take. A similar suggestion was made to integrate African American literature into the American Literature curriculum.

One of the most frequent complaints that audience members lodged was the unfair treatment of black students, particularly black males, by security guards and teachers for non-compliant behaviors that, when exhibited by white students, are simply translated as teenagers being teenagers.

The most piercing complaint of the night, however, came from a group of OPRF students who weren't on the panel. The students, most of whom were young, black women, said that the crowd of what appeared to be at least 300 people were mostly adults who don't attend, or work, in the school.

The kids and adults committing the racial offenses each day at OPRF, they said, were not present. When, many of the young women asked, would the perpetrators of the assaults Stovall described be held to account?

"If we're talking about the school," asked one of the young women, "then why isn't the whole school here?"

The meeting was organized by District 200 officials in response to a racial incident in October, when a white OPRF senior posted a blackface photo, which he captioned with the claim that he was running for president of the Black Leaders Union, to his Snapchat account. Despite deleting the image and apologizing a few hours later, the offensive photo was screenshot and shared, eventually ending up in the hands of OPRF teacher and activist Anthony Clark.

Clark posted the blackface photo to Facebook in what he said was an attempt to diffuse the situation. Clark had planned to host a community meeting and a meeting at his home between the white student before he was placed on paid administrative leave for his actions, which D200 communications had indicated could possibly have violated the school's code of conduct for personnel. The student was suspended for five days, but has not returned to school since then.

Clark's suspension, which the district said was not disciplinary, prompted an outcry from students and community members, with some marching along Lake Street on a Saturday morning in an effort to get Clark reinstated.