Black Students At Elite Lab School Say Racism Allowed To Fester | WBEZ
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Black Students At Elite Lab School Say Racism Allowed To Fester

The Black Students’ Association at the University of Chicago Lab Schools are admonishing the prestigious school for not taking racism and intolerance seriously after a student recently posted a racist meme. They say no clear consequences are in place.

In a letter read at a Martin Luther King Jr. assembly this week and posted on the student news website, members of the association suggest the school administration has treaded lightly when it comes to punishing students and teachers who act inappropriately.

The students said, “While we share pride in Lab’s attempts to promote diversity, this is still a deeply flawed and imperfect institution. Lab is a place where jokes about racial and religious identification have been normalized … where black students get their hair gawked at and constantly touched … where many students of color unfairly feel the need to internalize racist and harmful ‘jokes’ in order to assimilate and survive.”

They implore “the administration to create and swiftly enact specific consequences for the use of intolerant language and actions, regardless of a student or teachers financial background, donations and long-standing relationships between that person and the school.”

The Lab Schools has long drawn the children of the rich, powerful and the intellectual elite to its Hyde Park campus, including President Barack Obama, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel and former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. The tuition is more than $30,000 a year.

The students make clear these issues are long-standing and, in fact, similar incidents have come to light at other prominent schools in the city and across the country.

Brandi Kenner-Bell, president of Lab’s Black Family Forum, said students and parents have an impression that the administration reacts cautiously to incidents because the students come from privilege. Though she understands the need to protect student privacy, she said a lack of transparency about what happens to students who commit insensitive acts exacerbates problems.

“That leads to a lack of trust in the community because people feel like things are not being handled so that is a problem,” she said. “It is a problem that people have been complaining about for a while.”

Kenner-Bell said her group and the students know the school is not unique. Yet she said she thinks it is time the school confront these issues.

“Since we are all facing this problem, what are we doing about it? That is the question that black families at Lab have for our administration,” she said. “And I think that is probably what the kids are asking, ‘what are you doing about these specific things.’”

The school did not immediately make anyone available to speak with WBEZ about the letter, written by the Black Students’ Association. But it provided a December 17 letter, written by the school’s director, Charles Abelmann, and addressed to “Lab families, faculty and staff,” in which he says the school believes the “reaction must be responsive, caring, and thoughtful.”

He also said the school had heard from the Black Family Forum and the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion subcommittee of the Parents' Association. He wrote the school was ready to work with them to incorporate their suggestions and that he agrees with them that

“‘our job is to help young people learn and do better,’ while building students' racial literacy and their ability to address social tensions in productive ways.”

Also, parents say the school has alerted them of the development of a “diversity action plan,” which will be voted on by the school board soon.

But the Black Students Association makes it clear in its open letter they want the student who posted the racist meme and others who commit similar infractions to be punished. The student association seems especially perturbed that letters from the school’s leadership did not explicitly address the meme and condemn it as hate speech. “It is never too late to do so,” the students wrote in the letter. Abelmann referred to it as “a social media posting with racist language.”

Ella Beiser, news editor for the student website, said when a student who is insensitive can just return to school she understands that black students feel it sends a message they don’t matter as much. But she said other students feel like kicking out a student won’t teach them anything.

Beiser said she published the Black Students’ Association letter because she thinks the school needs to discuss the issues it highlights.

In the letter, its members also ask that the curriculum and texts at the school be reviewed and reconsidered. Too often, they say, they feel like people of color and their stories are depicted as tragic.

They implore the school to do more to increase diversity, both among teachers and students. Only 4% of the students are Latino, 9% are black, 19% are multiracial and 20% are Asian, according to the students’ association.

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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