They marched this weekend in my hometown, a Chicago suburb we chose 18 years ago because it seemed the safest and most welcoming place for a black dad and a white mom to raise two biracial children.
On its face, the march was about the fate of a black teacher, activist and political candidate who was punished by our high school for publishing a student’s blackface Snapchat on a public Facebook page, decrying it as racist and elevating the issue to a whole new audience.
But on a much deeper level, this is about a fundamental disconnect between two visions of what it really means to embrace diversity and equity in a community that once stood as a national model of integration but now seems riven by the same ugly, painful racial divisions laid bare by the 2016 election.
This tension has been simmering for years, so it’s no surprise the blackface photo boiled over into a full-blown racial incident, inspiring hundreds of online debates and headlines in the Chicago Tribune, The Root and on TV news. More than 5,000 people signed an online petition demanding the reinstatement of the suspended teacher, rebuking the administration for the “unfair and inconsistent” punishment of “a valued role model, who served as a mentor and support system for many students of color at OPRF” and protesting “a racist status quo that under-penalizes white members of the school community, and over-penalizes black members.”
This is how it started:
A 17-year-old senior at OPRF High School posts a selfie to Snapchat, his face smeared with a black charcoal face mask with the caption “Vote me for BLU president” — a reference to the high school’s Black Leaders Union. His followers quickly denounced his post as stupid and racist, and he pulled it down with an apology — but not before the photo was widely circulated by students. Teacher Anthony Clark posted it on Suburban Unity Alliance, his organization’s public Facebook page, and this only fueled the outrage.
When the story blew up, the student said he deeply regretted his decision to post the photo as an “off-handed joke.” The family defended Clark and offered up their progressive Oak Park bona fides: the teen marches for racial justice, defends LBGQT rights, even has a copy of Ta-Nehisi Coates on his bookshelf. The teen offered: “People’s anger is justified. I did not check my white privilege. I did not think about what I posted. There’s no excuse.” The high school suspended the senior for an undisclosed number of days.
The high school also suspended Clark for violating a social media policy that prohibits teachers from posting student photos without approval or in a way that “disrupts the educational or working environment.” Clark has said he didn’t know who the student was when he posted it, and pulled it after he talked to the student and his family. (The student has supported Clark, not just as a teacher, but also as a prominent local activist running for the U.S. House against 10-term Congressman Danny Davis, D-7th.)
But this is no longer about Clark or a stupid teenager. It is certainly not about “Suburban Unity.” In Oak Park, this is about picking sides, a litmus test for racial “wokeness.”
Here are the fault lines: If you disagree with the teacher’s action and express concern about the death threats received by the offending teenager, then you must be a racist (and probably white). If you see this incident as emblematic of an egregious pattern of progressive white privilege trumping the rights and voices of black students and teachers, then you are a race-baiting troublemaker (and certainly not a suburban unifier).
And if you see it both ways, as I do, then you must be confused and cowardly. So it feels safest to stay silent and wait for this to blow over.
But this is not going to blow over. And silence does feel cowardly.
The teen deserves to be punished and shamed for his offensive photo. He also deserves to learn from his recklessness without being physically harmed or forever branded as a racist.
The teacher needs to understand that his responsibility to protect students outweighs his impulse to spotlight racial injustice and fuel outrage. He also deserves reconsideration by our school district, which acted rashly in using an unevenly enforced policy to silence an educator prone to provoking his employer with inconvenient truths.
I’m a lot more clear-eyed about the shortcomings of my integrated utopia — and my own racial biases — than I was as the mom of two curly-haired, coffee-colored preschoolers. I’ve learned a lot about how hard it is to be a student of color in a suburb that is so quick to pride itself on its diversity but so slow to dismantle the educational structures that have disadvantaged our black and brown families for decades.
It’s been easy to feel hopeless these last couple of weeks, but we can do this. We can tackle our racial divisions without taking down our neighbors.
Tracy Dell’Angela Barber is executive director of the Oak Park Education Foundation, an independent nonprofit that provides enrichment to District 97 students. She spent most of her career as a newspaper reporter at the Chicago Tribune. This originally appeared as a blog post.