America’s religion of anti-racism has reached peak absurdity, with anti-racist gestures now themselves defined as discrimination. A recent controversy in Madison, Wisc., exemplifies the contradictions required to feed the narrative of America’s endemic bigotry.
A black senior at West High School in Madison allegedly stole another student’s cell phone on October 9. The alleged thief then pushed an assistant principal who tried to intervene; she called for assistance. A black security guard, Marlon Anderson, tried to escort the student out of the building; the student let fly a race-based tirade, calling Anderson the N-word and a slew of racial epithets. Anderson, repeating the word, told the student to “Stop calling me that.” The assistant principal started recording the interaction on her walkie-talkie — to document not the student’s insubordination but, rather, Anderson’s.
Anderson had violated the Madison Metropolitan School District’s (MMSD) zero-tolerance policy toward the N-word. Any iteration of the word, with whatever intent, by school staff would result in the user’s firing. According to Interim School Superintendent Jane Belmore, the district adopted the policy in order to “unequivocally protect” black students.
At least six MMSD teachers and staff members were fired or forced to resign over the last year for mentioning the N-word in front of students. The district has refused to discuss the circumstances of their removal. But the Madison teachers union says it is unaware of any instance where a staff member or teacher used the word to refer to students with derogatory intent. In one case, a teacher in an alternative high school was reading from a book that contained the word. (The district would not say what book.)
None of these firings and resignations triggered protests, and the race of those teachers and staff members is not known. The removals were welcomed by Madison’s activists. A Madison district spokeswoman told the Wisconsin State Journal in reference to the alternative high school teacher: “It has simply never been OK for an educator to use a racial slur with children.” The N-word “is based in extreme hatred and violence and causes deep harm,” the spokeswoman said. “It is essential to our core values and beliefs that we not tolerate that kind of harm to our children, our families and our staff.”
Madison’s zero-tolerance policy, however, ignores the distinction between using and mentioning a word. Speakers use words to refer to specific people or events. Speakers mention words not to refer to any particular person or thing, but rather to focus on the word itself as a linguistic object of using such words to denigrate rather than mentioning them in a different context. If one is reading a passage, say, of James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates that contains the N-word, one’s recitation of the word does not refer to any particular person; it is simply repeating the word in an abstract context.
Contemporary racial practice, however, treats certain words as magical talismans, capable of inflicting harm on official victim groups regardless of how those words are used or even of their meaning, as protests over the academic term “master” reveal. This magical view of language has been lethal to many a career, in K-12 schools as well as in colleges and universities.
It is a safe bet that the only appearance of such racial epithets in mainstream white society today is as a mention, not a use. To generate a sufficient number of racist incidents to ground the anti-racism religion therefore requires suspending the use-mention distinction. But if reinstating that distinction will itself generate a racial crisis, then it will be resurrected in the blink of an eye. And that is what happened in Madison over the last two weeks.
Marlon Anderson was fired under a policy allowing no discretion on the part of school administrators and therefore providing no outlet for unconscious bias to creep in. As West High School’s principal told parents in a letter informing them of Anderson’s suspension: “As you know, our expectation when it comes to racial slurs has been very clear. Regardless of context or circumstance, racial slurs are not acceptable in our schools.”
This would be the last defense of the zero-tolerance policy before Anderson’s firing was converted into a glaring instantiation of the Madison school district’s ongoing bias. Now it was precisely the failure to distinguish a word’s use from its mention that constituted the racial sin.
The first to resurrect the use-mention distinction was Anderson himself. “So if the class is reading ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ and the teacher is reading the book out loud and it gets to the part where the N-word is, the teacher gets fired?” Anderson asked incredulously. Well, yes. That is exactly what has happened to teachers in Madison and elsewhere.
A charter school operator wrote on Facebook: “I am so glad Marlon is fighting this. In Marlon’s case, the word was not used as a slur. It was not used toward anyone. He was simply telling the student to stop calling him that.”
Community activist Brandi Grayson, co-founder of the Young, Gifted & Black Coalition, demanded that the district rewrite the behavior policy to “ensure that context matter [sic] so both students and school staff are protected.”
Anti-racists across the country assailed Madison for its anti-slur policy. Arne Duncan, President Obama’s secretary of education, mocked the “crazy” and heartless Madison school district. “Just more evidence our country still can’t handle issues of race, and racism,” Duncan tweeted. Cher asked how “ppl” can “Be This Disrespectful” and offered to pay Anderson’s legal expenses if he sued the district for discrimination.
Madison’s high school students snapped into protest mode. Anderson’s son Noah, president of the West Black Student Union, organized a school walk-out and march to the school district headquarters. His father had been a “sacrifice” for long-standing racial tension in the MMSD, Noah Anderson told the media, but the walk-out would help “fix some of the race inequities.”
Noah invoked Martin Luther King Jr., implicitly connecting the racial injustices protested by King to the one suffered by his father. “We’re going to be like MLK over here,” he told the student throng through a bullhorn. Protest signs read “Black Staff Matter,” “Context Matters,” “West Staff Stands With Marlon and For Justice” and “Do Better.”
The local and national press covered the march as a milestone in racial justice, with reporters and cameramen walking along with the crowd to capture the mood. Not one press outlet asked how the MMSD’s previous unchallenged applications of the zero-tolerance policy differed from Anderson’s case.
The anti-racism religion requires that any mainstream institution accused of racism fall on its sword and cop to the charge, whether true or not. School board president Gloria Reyes announced that the board would review its anti-slur policies through a “racial equity lens, understanding that universal policies can often deepen inequities.” After Anderson was reinstated in his job, Reyes reiterated the need to continue examining the bigotry that had produced the zero-tolerance policy: “This is an opportunity for the board to ... dive deep into the issues of racism in our schools.”
The Madison authorities now face a difficult choice. They could adopt a race-conscious standard that says it is permissible for blacks but not whites to use or mention the N-word; this would codify existing practice. Alternatively, they could reinstate the use-mention distinction; doing so would raise the question of the white teachers and staffers who lost their jobs over a mention, as well as of the student who used the N-word derogatorily against Anderson, only to immediately disappear from official and media attention.
Or the authorities could do the unthinkable: Acknowledge that Madison schools are among the most tolerant, opportunity-filled institutions on earth and call on everyone to return joyfully to those schools’ core mission: Teaching and learning.
This piec originally appeared at The Hill
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal, and the author of the bestselling War on Cops and The Diversity Delusion. Follow her on Twitter here.
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