It is hard to talk about race. Add violence to the subject line and the conversation gets more combustible. We found that out last week at Oak Park and River Forest High School after a student assembly targeting issues of violence in the school setting — the kickoff to a week-long treatment of the subject at OPRF — went off kilter.
The outside speakers — professionals from Alexian Bros. Health Systems — have been roundly taken to task, first by unhappy students at the assembly and the next day by Principal Nathaniel Rouse in a letter of apology to students, families and the community.
Rouse said in the letter that the speakers "missed the mark" with a presentation that was "unfocused, preachy and geared for a younger audience. Worse, it addressed issues of race in a way that was offensive." That offense seems to have been most focused on the use of the term "colored people," though it was used as a historical reference in the context of the early Civil Rights Movement, and the speaker was an African-American woman.
It's easy to be tone deaf when the subject is race. There may be a generational divide, too, with high school students less interested in a history lesson than a frank discussion of the current day impact of race in our community.
Regardless, we'd offer these thoughts: The high school says activities through the rest of the week, related to the "You Mad? Get Glad!" program, went well. That's good because a focus on anti-violence efforts at OPRF is necessary. And while incidents of violent behavior at OPRF are certainly not limited to any racial group, the reality is that by measures of discipline meted out, black students at the school are involved disproportionately in such trouble.
That's a fair topic for discussion. Even though it is hard.
We've been very proud of the leadership of our high school — school board members, administrators, teachers — over the past several years for its determination to talk about race in ways personal and open. In our American society, there aren't many more loaded topics. But in communities like Oak Park and River Forest, which have cast our identity on our ability to maintain racial integration over decades, we need to keep this topic percolating.
Also, we'd suggest that if expertise on youth in Oak Park and River Forest is the topic, it is hard to go wrong inviting John Williams and his team of interventionists from Township Youth Services to lead a program. Firsthand knowledge of all the local players, a gift for straight talk and a leavening sense of humor all make this a home-grown resource on this complex topic.
Finally, an assembly a bit off the rails is only a big deal if everyone gets quiet and cautious. Always keep talking.