Fighting Words

3 minute read
Jack E. White

Black folks who know Jackie Goetter, president of the school board in Decatur, Ill., insist that she’s no bigot. But when she lashed out at Jesse Jackson last week for inserting himself into a local tempest over the expulsion of seven high school students for fighting, she sounded a bit like one–the late Leander Perez. “I really resent outsiders coming in and telling us how to run our schools,” Goetter whined, conjuring up memories of the legendary segregationist’s threat to bury “outside agitators” in the bayous of Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish during the 1960s. It was a lousy choice of words.

Then there’s the mixed message that Jackson is sending. He contends that although the officials who kicked those black kids out of school are overwhelmingly white, the issue is “not race but fairness.” In almost the very next breath, he likens Decatur to Selma, Ala. If race is not the issue in Decatur, why dredge up memories of a historic civil rights struggle where the only issue was race?

Those are just two examples of why it’s so difficult for all of us, black and white, to discuss racial issues productively: our words keep throwing us back to the past. That’s what’s happening in Decatur, where school officials’ stubbornness and loaded language from both sides have escalated a local dispute over school safety into a racial cause celebre.

As Jackson has repeatedly pointed out, no one was injured in the brawl that broke out at a high school football game in September. None of the teenagers used a weapon. If the six who still live in Decatur (the seventh has left the area) don’t get back into class fairly soon, they will in all likelihood become permanent dropouts–which, for young black men, often translates into a one-way ticket to jail. They obviously ought to be disciplined for taking part in the fight, but not more severely than the student who threatened to blow up a Decatur high school last summer and was expelled for only a year.

Yet it took intervention from Illinois’ Republican Governor George H. Ryan and state school superintendent Glenn W. McGee to get the board to reduce the expulsions from two years to one and to let the youths enroll in an alternative-education program. The board has not agreed to McGee’s proposal, which Jackson supports, that they consider re-admitting the boys midway through the year if their performance in alternative school demonstrates that they’ve learned their lesson. To make matters worse, the local prosecutor overreacted, getting four of the boys indicted for “mob action,” a felony. Jackson fired back by urging Attorney General Janet Reno to investigate the school board for allegedly leaking defamatory details about the boys to the press.

No one who knows the kids believes they are angels. Two of them have been in trouble with the law, several are chronic truants, and two are so-called third-year freshmen. A lot of people in Decatur are putting themselves on the line because they think these young men deserve a second chance. If it comes, they had better make the most of it by studying hard and straightening out their lives. That’s the only way to give real meaning to Decatur’s war of words.

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