An unfortunate racial portrayal

Published 7:11 pm Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Short Rows Header    Isle of Wight Academy has taken a beating during the past week over a student-produced video in which a fellow student wore blackface to portray Dollree Mapp, who sued Cleveland, Ohio police for illegally entering her house and seizing betting material for which she was subsequently charged with possessing.

    The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 landmark decision, firmly established that the 4th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the prohibition against illegal search and seizure, applies to the states.

    The Mapp case was about police stepping beyond their legal authority. It was about police acting without a search warrant and then using evidence obtained by those methods to convict a suspect. What it was not about was race. Ms. Mapp’s race was purely coincidental to the case.

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    The video produced by the IWA senior government students, however, is clearly about race. The female student portraying Mapp is dressed in a red and white striped shirt, presumably prison garb, has her face darkened with makeup and uses a dialect that presumably is intended to portray a poorly educated black person.

    At one point, she shouts at the video camera, “They done took my rights away from me.”

    No one can view the snippets of the video that remain in existence (it was pulled off the Internet after going viral a week and a half ago) without recognizing the effort to portray Mapp poorly.

    And yet, the one student involved in the video production who has publicly addressed the incident, said “None of us had heard the term ”blackface” prior to this video.”

    That comment begs the question. How does a group of senior high school students, who presumably have been taught current events, get to this point in their education and not realize the current national sensitivity regarding race relations? Even if they had never specifically heard the term “blackface,” somewhere along the line you would think they would have heard something about treating people with dignity and not making fun of someone who just happens to be different.

    This is not about what people are fond of calling “political correctness.” This is about pure and simple decency toward other people.

    Granted, given the tone of this year’s presidential campaign, young people might be thinking that there’s nothing wrong with poking fun at others because they are of a different color, or nationality or even because they are women. But we can at least hope that the vulgar nature of some presidential contenders’ dialogue not be allowed the classrooms of our nation’s high school seniors.

    More than anything else, this incident demonstrates just how far we still have to travel if we are to get beyond the racial gulf that still exists in this country. Across the U.S., there are serious efforts being made to open a dialogue between the races. A tentative start was made here last year when the NAACP and this newspaper hosted a panel discussion on the subject.

    But we have not scratched the surface. Racist e-mail exchanges by county elected officials made this county a national example of racial insensitivity just three years ago. And this latest incident only reinforces the fact that our community has a long way to travel down the road toward racial understanding.

    Nonetheless, Isle of Wight Academy seems determined to turn this incident into something positive. The school disciplined the students involved in making the video, but probably more important, Headmaster Benjamin Vaughan has opened discussions with local NAACP President Valerie Butler about developing racial sensitivity training for academy students.

Vaughan is a thoughtful and caring administrator and Butler is a firm but diplomatic spokesman the black perspective in racial matters. Having them work together is a positive step forward from a very unfortunate episode.