The headline “Racism” doesn’t appear very often in the Lakes Region Weekly, but there it was a few weeks ago in big, bold letters with the town name “Gray” printed above.

It seems two families are moving out of the Gray-New Gloucester school district due to problems their children are having concerning racism at the high school.

Is this 2009? Is this happening in the same state that helped elect Barack Obama the first African-American president?

Yes, my first reaction is shock and sadness for the families who have to deal with these racial taunts. I seriously didn’t think things like this happened in our schools nowadays. But my second reaction is to want to say to these families, “Stop packing. Don’t move out of town. Think about what you’re doing.”

While I don’t know the full details of the story, something really bad must have happened for these families to be moving out of the district. But I don’t feel that a geographic cure will make anything better. Moving will only embolden the racists and enhance their already warped sense of superiority.

High school is an ultra-hot melting pot. Racism, classism, materialism, sexism, athleticism divide the cool from the uncool. Have you ever gotten stuck behind a school bus as it makes its afternoon rounds? As much as I loathe being delayed, I like to “people watch” as the kids get off the bus. In Portland, you can watch the segregated groups disembark the yellow school bus according to gender and race. It’s plain as black and white (pun intended). The white boys who play soccer come off the bus in one group. Pretty white girls descend in another. Black guys dressed in baggy clothes in yet another. While they may take class together during the day, when they first get the chance, high school kids will tend to hang out with their own kind. It’s a fact of life.

Birds of a feather flocking together is certainly nothing new. But what is new to me is reading in the local paper about people leaving their school district because of racial harassment. Being familiar with the great lengths schools have gone to in promoting diversity, acceptance and tolerance of others, free speech and self-esteem, I’m not sure what else Gray-New Gloucester can do to prevent racist attitudes.

In the two instances cited in the article, it appears a white student used a racial slur in class to describe Barack Obama. The other instance was racial slurs printed on a bathroom wall. While these are disturbing, I’m not sure what could have prevented them. Would a muzzle be the best prevention for racist remarks? Or should we install video cameras in the boys’ bathrooms?

Obviously, in this liberty-loving society, we wouldn’t tolerate preemption of someone saying objectionable words in class. Obviously, if a student continues to disrupt class, then by all means they should be disciplined. But kids will be kids, and people will be people. There will always be racists. Despite their devilish stupidity, racists are still Americans and they must be allowed to say things that are counter-culture.

So, what exactly are these families looking for from Gray-New Gloucester? Are they looking for punishment? But how do you punish a racist? Even the harshest punishment would do little to change a person’s mind regarding race. Since racism is a learned trait, only life experience will help a racist realize he’s wrong. Only getting to know people of a different race can change his mind.

It’s true, every town has racists. Fortunately, if Obama is any indication, there are fewer racists in Maine than ever. Still, racists are everywhere – in every school, in every neighborhood. So, when racist slurs occur, it’s everyone’s job, not just the school committee, superintendent or principal’s, to stand up to it and not back down. Retreat is not an option.

To be sure, the people who can most effectively help a racist realize the error of his ways are the people who are the objects of his racial attacks. But when those people move out of town, as these families are doing, they take with them that possibility.

John Balentine, of Windham, is a former editor of the Lakes Region Weekly.

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