A multi-racial coalition of activists rallied Monday to support a student and his family after a racially motivated bullying incident at J.S Waters School in Goldston.
The student, who is bi-racial, was reportedly sold at a faux slave auction by white classmates during baseball tryouts. J.S. Waters serves children in Kindergarten through eighth grade; students of color are only a small portion of the school’s enrollment.
Ashley Palmer, the child’s mother, called the incident “blatant racism” and questioned why school administrator handed down only a one-day suspension to students responsible for the auction.
“This is not diversity and inclusion. This is not equity. This is racism and deserves to be treated as such,” Palmer said.
A student who pretends to sell a classmate at a slave auction or commits other such acts of racial bullying shouldn’t receive the same punishment as students who commit minor offenses, such as pulling a classmate’s hair, Palmer said.
“It [racial bullying] should have its own designation, reportable at the county level and handled with the significant consequences it deserves,” she said.
Later Monday, many of the 150 or so supporters who first gathered on the grounds of the Pittsboro Presbyterian Church for a news conference, walked the short distance to the Historic Chatham County Courthouse to address their concerns with the Board of Education.
Superintendent Anthony Jackson apologized to every student who has “felt demeaned, disrespected or marginalized because of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender, religion or disability” while in the district’s care.
“In Chatham County Schools we proudly boast that diversity is our strength and moving forward it will be our intentional focus to ensure that this celebration includes everyone,” Jackson said. “Moving forward my commitment to you is that we will do better.”
Jackson said such behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. “Those who participate in acts that demean any person are acting outside of the values of our school system and will be held accountable using every means at our disposal,” the superintendent said.
The school board approved a series of policy revisions to address such offenses.
The racial incident at J.S. Waters reopened old racial wounds for some of those who gathered at Pittsboro Presbyterian Church to support the Palmer family.
Ronda Taylor Bullock, a J.S. Waters graduate, and a state anti-racism education leader, recalled a white classmate telling her that she could not attend a birthday party because she was Black.
“Something that’s unique about the experiences now that wasn’t true for me and my experiences when I came through; it sounds like the same toxic behavior is there but this time, there might be personnel upholding this toxic racism,” Bullock said. “That was not the case when I came through, so in some ways, this right now is worse.”
The racism Bullock experienced while a Chatham County student has powered her work. She is the co-founder of we are, a nonprofit organization that provides anti-racism training for children, families and educators.
“How many more Black and Brown children have to go through J.S. Waters with a similar story? Bullock asked. “How many more have to go through, seared, branded like a slave by these harmful memories that we will not forget.? “
Carl Thompson, a former Chatham County Commissioner who is Black, said he was taunted and called racial slurs when he attended a mostly white elementary school before formal school integration occurred in the county. “And when the teacher left the classroom, we knew we were in for it,” Thompson said. “There were three of us [Black students] and man you can believe we got the worst, including threats of violence.”
Parent’s rarely heard about the racial incidents that occurred during that period, he said. A few parents attending Monday’s rally said racism at some schools has become so normalized that their children rarely mention such incidents.
Thompson said he was once asked by a high school classmate why so few Blacks attend class reunions.
“I told her very frankly, and was honest with her, that our experiences were not pleasant with many of our classmates during our high school years and we had no desire to see them as adults, much less enjoy an evening of memories with them,” Thompson said.
Hope and unity
Amid the disappointment many speakers felt as a result of the racial incident at J.S. Waters, there were signs of racial unity and hope of healing.
A large group of Latino students expressed concern about Black classmates and shared their own experiences with racism in county schools. Evelyn Munoz, a Jordan-Matthews High School senior and member of the Hispanic Liaison youth group, said it’s important that students understand how racism has shaped America.
“We’re given facts and dates in history but aren’t shown the everlasting consequences of discrimination in our housing, prison and education systems,” Munoz said. “We can’t be prepared to fight racism if we’re not taught about it.”
Two Chapel Hill pastors — the Rev. Larry Neal, who is Black, of Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church and the Rev Andrew Taylor-Troutman, who is white, of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church — shared that their congregations meet each Sunday afternoon to have “real talk” about racism, politics and religion.
“The reason we have these talks is because we realize there is no Black heaven, no white heaven,” Neal said.
In an interview with Policy Watch, Taylor- Troutman, who is white, said white parents must be intentional about having conversations with their children about race and racism. “It’s also important to be very clear that you, even as a child, can stand up when you hear someone being made fun of because of the color of their skin or their gender,” Taylor-Troutman said. “You have a voice and you can say that’s not right.”