‘More work to do’ as we celebrate Black History Month

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category icon Editorials, Opinion

Two months ago, a visiting basketball coach from Portland’s Benson Polytechnic High School — a former pastor, nonprofit leader, father and mentor to the members of his majority-BIPOC girls basketball team  — asked Camas School District leaders to pay closer attention to racism and hostility within Camas schools. 

“Clearly you have a lot more work to do around fundamental principles of diversity, equity and inclusion,” Benson High coach Eric Knox wrote to Camas school administrators and school board officials in December 2021. The letter — and Knox’s official complaint against the school district — followed a Dec. 10 basketball game at Camas High, during which several Black Benson players reported racial slurs being hurled by at least one person sitting in the Camas student section. 

“My team is solely comprised of young women of color,” Knox told Camas school leaders in his letter. “They deserve to be treated with respect and feel safe no matter what gym they play in. The core of this complaint is a question: What are you going to do to ensure that Camas High School will be a safe environment for the next team of non-white students that plays in your gym?” 

Though an independent investigator could not definitely prove a Camas student shouted the “N-word” at the Benson players, the fact remains that teenagers visiting a Camas school for an athletic event heard racial slurs directed toward them as they walked into the gymnasium and while they were competing. 

These girls did not feel safe in Camas. That fact alone — especially combined with a powerful question posed by a Black father, coach and community leader — should have prompted Camas school and city officials to immediately rethink their equity, diversity and inclusion work. 

We would like to say Knox’s letter is surprising, but it’s not. There is no doubt racism still regularly rears its ugly head in Camas and inside its schools. We can still recall an August 2021 Camas School Board meeting, when a teenager who described himself as a “former Vancouver Public Schools students” who was now being homeschooled stood before the Camas School Board and told them Black History Month and Womens History Month were “stupid” and “a waste of (his) time.” 

When he finished speaking, several audience members applauded. 

In 2017, a Black Camas High School freshman discovered that another Camas student — a white member of the school’s soccer team — had posted a photo of the Black student on a social media site alongside a racist message: “Field hand for sale. Needs some whipping sometimes, but has a strong back. Will make a great slave.”

That incident — along with an outcry from parents worried the 2016 presidential election, which highlighted Donald Trump’s hostile attacks on immigrants, would cause tension for BIPOC families in Camas —prompted Camas school officials to hold conversations around racism and to eventually adopt a new equity, diversity and inclusion policy in 2018

The policy and the district’s work to include students, staff, families and the community in a larger conversation around equity, diversity and inclusion are good starting points but recent events prove  Camas — and our nation — still have a long way to go when it comes to overcoming racism.

Racial violence in the United States escalated during Trump’s final two years in power. In 2021, the FBI reported that “hate crimes targeting people because of their race increased more than any other category between 2019 and 2020,” with “attacks on Black people (seeing) the largest rise, from 1,972 in 2019 to 2,755 in 2020.” Of the 10,800 people who reported they were a victim of a hate crime in 2020, 62 percent said they were targeted due to their race, ethnicity or ancestry, the FBI reported. 

This week, on the first two days of Black History Month, tens of thousands of college students attending at least 17 historically Black colleges and universities in the U.S. were targeted by bomb threats now connected to a violent, homegrown, neo-Nazi terror group known as Atomwaffen Division. 

Meanwhile, white conservative parents across the country have orchestrated a campaign targeting school districts that have equity policies, educators who teach about the horrors of slavery and the Holocaust, and even school library books that even dare mention race as contributing factor to a young person’s struggles. 

In Texas, these parents are trying to ban at least 50 books from school classrooms and libraries, including a biography of former First Lady Michelle Obama geared toward children. Why? Because a parent said they believed the book “unfairly depicts former President Donald Trump as a bully” and because the book might make white girls feel ashamed of themselves. 

The parents also want to ban “Class Act,” a graphic novel by Jerry Craft, a Coretta Scott King award-winning  author whose first novel in the same series, “New Kid,” won the 2020 Newbery Medal. The graphic novel tells the story of a Black eight-grader, but white parents in Texas felt the book will make white children feel “brainwashed that one race is superior than the other.” 

This idea that children who read about other people’s lived experiences are going to suddenly feel awful about themselves is ridiculous. You know what most children are going to feel when they read about the hardships experienced by other children? Empathy. And if the rise in hate crimes is any indication, that’s something we are sorely lacking in this country right now.
It is Black History Month. It’s also February, which means the weather in the Pacific Northwest is going to be absolutely perfect for settling in with a book or movie that will expand our knowledge of Black Americans’ history and contributions to this country. Here are a few suggestions to get you started: