Yesterday, the Orange County school board voted against prohibiting the confederate flag.  Across elementary and secondary and high school grounds, the Orange County school board has decided that is is okay to carry and fly a symbol of white nationalism and racist oppression.  In lieu of banning the flag on campus, the school board voted to establish an ‘equity board’ to advise the Orange County Schools Board of Education on “several items, including symbolic speech.”  In defense of their actions, the Board’s chair stated that “Board members and OCS will not tolerate hate speech, bullying or intimidation,” although he has been unavailable for comment since the meeting.  It is hard to understand how allowing the confederate flag to be carried, flown, and waved on school campuses is not tolerating hate speech.

The northern Orange County NAACP twice requested that the school board intervene against the ways in which the confederate flag is used to intimidate and malign students of color at Orange County schools.  The Hate-Free Schools Coalition also worked on the latest request.  The school board declined, deciding instead to appoint a committee to “take a holistic look at our current climate, including symbolic speech issues, achievement data and student access to inform an open conversation and recommend to the full board areas for improvement.

We need to have moved to a place of understanding that crying ‘white power’ on a school campus in fact akin to crying ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre.  It is not protected speech.  As high as we hold the right to free expression, we must hold at least as high the right of every student to reach for their individual potential.  And we need to oppose any force that prevents them from doing so.

Neighboring Chatham County does prohibit the confederate flag on its school campuses.  Orange County schools’ policy used to prohibit conduct and dress “demeaning to a person’s race, religion, disability, sex, national origin or intellectual ability.”  As of last winter, the district’s dress code stepped back from this position.  Instead, there is now an “anti-discrimination, harassment and bullying policy, revised at the same time as the dress code, [which] covers race in a much longer list of protected characteristics, prohibiting mistreatment of others based on ‘race, color, religion ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental physical, developmental or sensory disability.'”

According to a spokesperson for the Durham Public Schools, which also do not ban the confederate flag on their campuses, “The Supreme Court has determined that student speech can be prohibited or punished if it causes a ‘substantial and material disruption’ to the learning environment or the school administration can point to specific facts ‘which might reasonably have led (them) to forecast’ such a disruption.”  Negative experiences in relation to racial prejudice demonstrably hinder cognitive development and student learning.

In our country, the Department of Justice is supposed to ensure fair and impartial administration of justice for all Americans.  If our municipalities and states fail to rise to the standards exacted by our constitution and our current laws, the Justice Department is supposed to… enforce JUSTICE.  Can we trust the Department of Justice under its current leadership to rise to the occasion?

These days, local failures to act with integrity, and to treat Americans with equity, feel more frightening than ever, because the Justice Department is not exactly on the job.  At least the head of the Department is not.  Prior to the Senate approval of Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as the leader of the Justice Department, a year-long investigation had yielded a one hundred and sixty-one page report on issues within the Chicago Police Department.  Previous investigation had yielded a one hundred and five page report on policing issues in Ferguson, Missouri.  Yet the current Attorney General, within 19 days of being confirmed 52-47 along party lines by the Senate (after contention and delay), has questioned all of these findings as “pretty anecdotal and not so scientifically based,” while acknowledging that he has read neither report.

Racism on campus is not new.  Nor is Jeff Session’s bigotry.  What is new, is a world in which Mr. Sessions sits as the Attorney General, a position of authority able to correct or reinforce prejudice at local and state levels across our country.  Cabinet appointments matter.  This is just one important and frightening example.

Stay awake.  Keep the faith.  Keep in touch.