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

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

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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. 


Reader Comments

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Tommy McCoy  

Posted: November 23rd, 2017 10:58 AM

Ryan McCarthy, the race problem at the high school will not be resolved until there are more African American's then there are of any other race attending the school. As for groups of African American's, that was a problem in the Military. During the day, I had a nice friend, and at nice when he was in his group he would never acknowledge that he knew me. It is a difficult problem to resolve and it sure doesn't help when White people say it isn't the African American's fault. It is the problem of the White's and the White's need to feel they have to resolve it. Get into the real World, and you will find out there are a lot of African American's who would prefer to stay within their own group, which is not unlike Asian's and Hispanic's. When it comes to education, that can change so much although not everyone has an interest in learning and thinking how the World would be better if everyone would put down their race guilt and accept people of all races. No one is any better than anyone else

Ryan McCarthy  

Posted: November 22nd, 2017 8:35 PM

Whoa, let's leave the fighting Irish out of this. And by the way this whole problem has been alive and well going both ways all the way back to the late 80's to early 90's when I was at OPRF. There used to be a mob of 10-15 African American males that would slap the s**t out of whit kids with crew cuts. Admin never did a thing.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: November 21st, 2017 12:14 PM

If this was happening in the private sector, then the leadership of that organization would be under fire.....correct? What is the principal and superintendent doing? They are the leaders of the school and they are in a position to change the "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". What role does leadership play to resolve this? Why are they accepting this behavior from their staff?

Nick Polido  

Posted: November 18th, 2017 8:07 AM

So, a 17-year-old post an incentive, stupid, immature snap chat photo in black face then quickly takes in down. Mr. Clark (teacher, active community organizer, current candidate for Congress) then posts this photo on Facebook which results in bringing in the media and the outrage of the community, making this student the poster child of rampant racism in our community. Now this child has been suspended for five days and has not returned, how could he after Mr. Clark's irresponsible actions, now hailed as the victim who faced no consequence from district 200.

Alice Caputo  

Posted: November 18th, 2017 3:01 AM

I believe you missed and proved my point all at once. Have a wonderful day.

Elizabeth Titus Rexford from Oak Park  

Posted: November 17th, 2017 8:57 PM

Sorry, Alice. Anti-Irish prejudice is not in the same league as African American prejudice and you know it. I agree there might have been a LOT of anti-Irish prejudice in the late 19th century and early 20th century, but, still, there is no comparison.

Alice Caputo  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 6:23 PM

Oh, and if you act up too much, you get placed in a Paddy Wagon.

Alice Caputo  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 6:21 PM

Thankfully it's still OK to have "Fighting Irish" mascots, refer to Irish as drunks and celebrate an Irish holy day by all heritages getting drunk.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 2:13 PM

Leslie, You are correct. I apologize for my harsh comments. Just because my personal experience is different, it does NOT discount another's.

Leslie Roberts from Oak Park  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 1:13 PM

How many people who made comments here were actually at the event? Obviously, it would be impossible to put the 2 hour transcript in this article. Here remarks are taken out of context. The agreement at the event was that what the brave students on the panel said on that panel was to stay in that room. The audience raised their hands in agreement. Did the reporter get the permission of those students on the panel to give their names and quote them publicly? Even though the whole event was not to bring up the incident, the reporter and commenters have brought it up in a way giving it more attention than the actual meeting and its purpose. All people react to expectations placed on them and people treat people according to the stereotypical way they view them. . If teachers place low expectations on students and do not see them of capable of academic success (AP classes), then those students are denied the opportunity to shine and reach their full potential, starting from entering elementary school. The idea is for the teachers to become more aware of their own prejudices so they can learn and change, just like students learn and change. Thank you Elizabeth for writing about walking in someone else's shoes -- empathy. When you personally get to know a HUMAN BEING that is different from you physically and/or culturally, you can not maintain such harsh prejudice of a whole group of people and you say to yourself: I don't want anyone to treat my wonderful friend in any harmful manner. Every time you see it happen to someone like your friend, you know your friend too suffers from that same bad treatment. Then you have to do something to help your friend and all those like your friend that are suffering from injustice. Respect the dignity of all HUMAN BEINGS you meet. That was the underlying theme of the event. Finding ways to do that at the H.S., was the goal. First we have to listen to the suffering of others to be aware of the problem to solve it.

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 12:01 PM

I am Mexican and my teachers said some ignorant things in my day about Mexican culture, but I wasn't offended. I laughed at their ignorance. One of my college professors actually asked me if I speak "Mexican". Since Mr. Clark's Facebook posting starting this whole conversation, we should look at how that was handled. Ms. Contreras..."my culture has really lost its meaning". Sorry, but just because you aren't surrounded by Spanish speaking students and faculty all day who share the same ethnicity as you does not mean your culture is lost. It just means its not on the front burner. As a minority, all I really want, as probably most do, is to be treated equally. Mr. Clark was NOT treated equally. He was given a pass because of the color of his skin. Any white teachers makes that post on social media and their career is finished. What kind of example are we setting by making an exception for Mr. Clark. Is this considered "social justice"?. Is this considered "reparations"? Start by applying the same standards to all students and faculty and things will improve. Stop punishing black students more than others for the same offense and stop lowering the bar to ensure students of color "succeed". Students will thank you when they come back for their 10 year reunion.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 10:50 AM

"assaulted by low expectations in the classroom". Plus, that statement was not explored or expanded upon.

Jennifer Malloy Quinlan  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 10:46 AM

Or, the teachers can just not say anything? I'm learning every day to be considerate of those around me. Assuming assimilation is necessary for everyone in the community is absurd. One can simply be respectful and reverent.

Elizabeth Titus Rexford from Oak Park  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 10:32 AM

I disagree, Klara. This is real. This is not being "overly sensitive". This is about feeling comfortable in any environment. Why not imagine yourself as a black person? Walk in someone else's shoes for a bit and you'll get the point. I think it's extremely healthy and necessary to focus directly on problems of racism so we can try to ameliorate the situation, which none of us has asked for. We were born as we are.

Klara Gabor  

Posted: November 16th, 2017 10:24 AM

I will not deny racism in the world including reverse racism by minorities but, I feel this is more a case of overly sensitive students. The teacher's suggestion for Cinco de Mayo were insensitive? Oh please, what exactly did this student want or expect ? You can do little today that doesn't raise cries of racist, sexist etc. OPRF may well have a race problem but, it is not one sided and certain individuals in the community need to stop stirring the pot.

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