Saturday, April 2, 2016

Institutional Racism Harms Students, So Maine's Board Of Edu Should Act #mepolitics

I sent this letter to each member of the Maine State Board of Education this morning. You can send them your thoughts, too.

Martha Harris, Chair
Maine State Board of Education

Dear Ms. Harris:
I am writing to you about a case of institutional bias, even racism, on the part of a public school system in Maine. Language and imagery which insult a group of people is unacceptable even in the private sector; on the part of a publicly-funded institution created to educate all the young people of a community, it is deeply disturbing.

Representatives of all five of Maine’s native tribes have met with RSU #54’s board of directors to object to the continued use of the “Indian” mascot by Skowhegan Area High School sports teams. A public hearing subsequently conducted by the board allowed only residents of the district to speak, and even so a majority of those who did so were in favoring of retiring the mascot. Then, in an atmosphere characterized by threats and intimidation offered by some members of a group calling itself “Skowhegan Pride,” the board held a very close vote and the mascot was retained.

Since that time, members of the “Pride” group have made verbal threats, some of a violent nature, toward board members and native people who object to the mascot. Maulian Smith, a Penobscot woman who leads the “Not Your Mascot” Maine chapter, has been insulted, slandered, and threats have been made on social media. Some of the threats were even aimed at her school age daughters. 

“Pride” supporters have published numerous racial insults e.g. cartoon “Indians” with the name “Runs With Beer.” They have mimicked what they believe to be native practices such as the “war whoop” or “war dance.” Native people have repeatedly objected to these practices as racist and degrading. It is my opinion that some of these practices, particularly the racially motivated threats of violence are, in fact, civil rights violations under Maine law.

A particularly egregious example of racism is the “Scalp towel” which was shared and joked about by Rick York, a sports team coach employed by the district, and RSU #54 board member Jennifer Pelotte Poirier. 

This distressing artifact is a flesh-colored towel with an illustration of a hand clutching a piece of skin with a tuft of hair on it. It was sold in Skowhegan to raise money for sports teams. This is an historical reference to the colonial New England practice of bounty hunting native people where a portion of the scalp was used to prove that a native had been killed in order to claim the bounty. In some cases, bounty hunters also removed the genitalia of male natives to prove that they had killed a man. This is not something to be celebrated or joked about in a school setting. Native people have indicated repeatedly that they find this sort of “humor” to be demeaning.

I am teacher and Civil Rights Team adviser at a school near Skowhegan. Our sports teams sometimes play their sports teams. Student athletes at my school tell me that they do not want to play a team with a racist name, but that they do not dare to object because it might get them in trouble with their coach. Whatever our opinion may be of failing to find the courage to stand up for one’s convictions, it’s clear that this situation creates stress for student athletes. 

My school also has students who are members of the Passamoquoddy tribe. They have also expressed to their peers that the Skowhegan school mascot is distressing to them when they attend away games there. While the “Pride” group has repeatedly claimed that only the name, not the image of an “Indian” is presently in use, the fact is that the school does display images of a native person in connection with their team name.

Other unofficial images of cartoonish "Indians" continue to be used as well. For example,

Inline image 1

In these times of rising hate speech and racist invective at the national level, it is particularly important for our educational institutions to set an example of respect and civil discourse. I think it incumbent on the Maine State Board of Education to lead the way in doing the right thing. The American Psychological Association (APA) is on record calling for “the Immediate Retirement of American Indian Mascots, Symbols, Images, and Personalities by Schools, Colleges, Universities, Athletic Teams, and Organizations WHEREAS the American Psychological Association has recognized that racism and racial discrimination are attitudes and behavior that are learned and that threaten human development.” The APA references studies which show evidence of the harmful effects of racist mascots on young people who are exposed to them. You may read their full statement here.

As an educator and a property tax payer in RSU #54, who was nonetheless barred from giving public testimony to the board as I do not reside in that district, I call on the state Board of Education to take whatever steps are necessary to cause the district from ceasing to use a mascot that is racist, and offensive to many. It certainly offends me, and I have good reason to believe that it is harmful to young people in the community.

Respectfully submitted,

Lisa Savage

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