Discussions of race may not always be so civil

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The compromise last week which saw Flora Green shifted from the principalship at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School to a newly created post as second-in-command in District 97's special education program was a wise one. The appointment is a two-year bridge to Green's retirement from the district after a career of genuine service, and clearly it was to Green and her supporters a more palatable move than the perceived demotion to the rank of teacher.

The action also avoids what likely would have been a racially charged public hearing if Mrs. Green had fought her reassignment.

Why is it good for Oak Park to avoid such a public ruckus over perceptions of racial bias in our schools? A good and complicated question.

This week we carry a letter from Jim Gates, the president of the Oak Park Teachers' Association, and, as he notes, a 32-year Oak Park resident. Referencing the upset at Brooks, he calls for a task force to lead an "open and frank" discussion of race in Oak Park. But he prefaces that timely suggestion with a request for "civility guidelines" and a process for "public censure" for citizens coming before the District 97 board to make comment. "Comments designed to defame, insult, accuse, and/or slander members of the board, the school community, or community members at large will not be tolerated," he suggests.

Clearly District 97, District 200 and the village government have seen an upswing in uncivil comment in past years. No one likes, or defends, the name-calling and sometimes over-the-top rhetoric that speakers can employ. But our elected boards also share a part of the responsibility as the amplification of upset results, in part, from a sense of arrogance and disconnection with elected officials.

Further, while we were disheartened by the tactless "burning cross" comment to the Dist. 97 board by our own columnist, Stan West, and while we do not believe the removal of Mrs. Green was racially motivated, we do sense a new level of racial frustration felt by some black Oak Parkers toward our schools. That frustration needs to be actively heard. If the words used are harsh, if the tone used is abrasive, if the message places off some arbitrary "civility meter," then we still need to hear it and respect it.

Mr. Gates, in his letter, singles out comments by both West and Mrs. Wyanetta Johnson. We've noted our opinion of West's comment. Wyanetta Johnson is something of a special case for us. Mrs. Johnson has a fierce passion for children. And she has played a vital role as an advocate working on the inside of Dist. 97 and OPRF for years. For her to have come so far outside and in such a strident way, tells us her frustration is deep and real. Her views, and those of all others, must be heard well before a civil discussion worth having can begin.

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