Until Friday, it was standard practice in Nettleton, Mississippi’s Middle School—though illegal—to segregate student body elections. This practice was enforced by documents that articulated the race requirements for specific offices (e.g., president, vice president, etc.) and went so far as to set aside 12 leadership positions for white students and four positions for African-American students. For years, the policy went unchallenged, virtually unnoticed by the district, which proudly displays on its homepage the motto, “teaching today what matters tomorrow.” Given what has now been exposed to the nation, this begs the question, what, exactly, were they trying to teach?
This blatant attempt to preserve segregation was an institutionalized assertion of a mythical white superiority — where students of color would never have an opportunity to lead the student body, or even have an equal chance to compete—an especially disappointing situation given that the principal of the Nettleton Middle School is an African-American.
“These policies have been in place for the last 30 years as an attempt to resist school integration,” said attorney Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP Mississippi State Conference. “As long as no parents complained, no changes were made.”
Thankfully, a parent did have the courage to challenge the system, ultimately shaming the school district into reversing its racist policy. Following the Board’s unanimous decision to overturn the election policy, Russell Taylor, the superintendent for the district stated that the school system was “growing in ethnic diversity and that the classifications of Caucasian and African-American no longer reflect our entire student body.”
Seems the district, as reflected by Taylor’s comments, may be missing the point.
As egregious as this case is, it was symbolic of a broader question about how to ensure “excellence in education” in a school district in which African-Americans comprise 27 percent of the middle school students and in which the dropout rate for all students is nearly 25 percent, compared to the state average of 16 percent.
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The reason the racial requirements were so problematic was not that there weren’t enough racial classifications to be inclusive or reflective of the growing diversity in the district. It was that racial classifications were even assigned to certain positions of leadership, denying every student in the district an equal chance to be fully engaged in activities that are supposed to teach students about our democracy, through governance and civic participation.
The potential disconnect between the growing diversity of the student population and the district’s practices may also impact other administrative areas. While the district has slowly worked to diversify its administration and faculty, the overall lack of racial and ethnic diversity at this level is an issue that continues to be of great concern to local social justice and education advocates.
“People want to know what efforts are in place to certify, recruit, and hire more African-American teachers,” Johnson said.
Though the school district voted to reverse the activity policy that previously segregated the positions for which students could run, because schools themselves run on the practices of administrators and teachers that enforce fairness or reject it, its their commitment to cultural competency—not through token leadership but through the enactment of policies and practices that actually reflect an excellence in diversity—that breathe life into the civil and human rights laws that are in place to ensure human dignity.
As the Mississippi NAACP and other advocates in the state continue to work with the Nettleton School Board and its middle school administrators to ensure adherence to existing civil rights laws, so much more than the fairness of a campus-based election is at stake.
As Carter G. Woodson, Franz Fanon, and other scholars of racial oppression have asserted, the “colonized mind” has a difficult time rejecting the structures of racism, however harmful they may be to our communities. This is something we must challenge.
Failing to address the lingering racial segregation in the state’s public structures is a violation of the human and civil rights that affect not only our collective social policies, but also the academic confidence and long-term outcomes for our children.