Portland schools open dialog on 'institutional racism'

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Members of the NAACP and Maine Civil Liberties Union met with school leaders last week to discuss the role of privilege and power in institutional racism.

The workshop began with the film, “A Class Divided,” about a third-grade teacher’s provocative lesson on discrimination.

The teacher, Jane Elliot, divided her Iowa classroom into two groups based on eye color. One day, she told blue-eyed students they were better than brown-eyed children, who had to wear collars; on day two, the roles were reversed. The two groups were not allowed to mingle and, throughout each day, Elliot subtly ridiculed the so-called inferior group, blaming all of their mistakes and behavioral problems on their eye color.

After the film, the more than 30 people at the June 10 meeting broke up into two discussion groups.

A group facilitated by Brianna Twofoot, a MCLU organizer, and Jenna Vendil, of the League of Young Voters, were surprised by how quickly the students in the so-called superior group became mean and nasty towards their classmates, with whom they were close friends only moments before the experiment began.

“I was surprised by the speed at which the atmosphere changed,” School Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said, “and how quickly and genuinely they felt it.” 

More importantly, however, School Committee members were surprised about how academic performance of the students in the inferior group suffered. Students in the inferior group took twice the amount of time to complete a card game that, the day before the experiment, they completed with ease. The superior group, meanwhile, performed the task faster.

“I was surprised by how quickly (the students) beat themselves down,” committee member Sarah Thompson said. “They didn’t feel as smart or worthy.” 

Committee member Jaimey Caron said he was struck by how relieved the students were when the experiment was over and the students were allowed friends again. Elliot asked the class what they wanted to do with their collars and students threw them away. One student struggled to tear his into pieces. 

“That collar had become a symbol,” Caron said. “He wouldn’t do enough to tear it apart.” 

Incoming Superintendent James Morse emphasized to the group that discrimination doesn’t only occur in reaction to skin color, but to economic privilege, too. Morse, who grew up poor in what was, at the time, a rough Bayside neighborhood, said he suffered from discrimination while attending Catholic school in Portland. Students, like workers in a corporation, often take their queues from their leaders, he said. 

“Discrimination in any form is unacceptable,” Morse said. “But unless you believe that in your heart, mind and conscience, subtle discrimination can creep into an organization. There are all kinds of ways we can hurt one another without knowing it.”  

NACCP President Rachel Talbot-Ross said she was encouraged that school officials seemed to understand how subtle messages of people in positions of power can be interpreted and emulated by children. “If they understand that, we’re in good shape,” she said. 

It’s a lesson that some took to heart, even before the workshop began.

Simon Thompson, a student representative on the School Committee, said he had set up a meeting with the Portland High School principal to discuss the academic requirements for the high school honor society. He said there are only 35 PHS society students, all of whom are white – a rate Morse described as ridiculously low.

The first meeting between the two groups will not be the last. Another workshop will be held in the fall to discuss statistics specific to Portland’s school system.

“It’s the very beginning of an ongoing discussion,” Eglington said.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net


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p-NAACP.JPGSchool officials and civil rights activists discuss the role power and privilege play in subtle forms of institutional racism during a meeting on June 10. (Billings photo)