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Editorial: Ignorance can't be an excuse for racist behavior

The Baltimore Sun Editorial Board, The Baltimore Sun on

Published in Op Eds

When perpetrators of racist incidents are caught in the act, too often they hide behind ignorance. Otherwise intelligent people suddenly don't know that what they did was offensive or insensitive.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam used the argument to explain away why, as a young man, he darkened his face with black shoe polish as part of a Michael Jackson costume: "I look back now and regret that I did not understand the harmful legacy of an action like that," he said during a press conference. That state's attorney general, Mark R. Herring, blamed "ignorance and glib attitudes" for his decision to wear blackface during his college days as part of a costume depicting rapper Kurtis Blow. And it's not just Virginia: A Twitter user took it upon herself to see if there were racist or blackface images in old University of Maryland yearbooks, and it only took "5 minutes," to find them, she wrote, prompting a quick apology from University President Wallace Loh.

You would think that people would know by now not to dress in black face, a form of costume worn by white performers in the 19th century (and, sadly, well beyond) that depicted offensive caricatures of African Americans. Painting swastikas on any wall is also not OK. Neither is any depiction of nooses. Using racial epithets, a huge no-no. But as the number of hate incidents continue to grow, it has become apparent the message hasn't gotten around to everyone. On Thursday, Gucci stopped selling a black turtleneck sweater that reminded people of black face. The sweater pulls up over the bottom half of the face with a cut out and large, exaggerated lips around the mouth. Seriously.

The company apologized and said they would use the incident as a learning moment. Apparently, there are plenty of other people around the country in need of such a moment.

Anne Arundel County officials, to their great credit, are doing something about it. Spurred by a racial incident that occurred at one of its schools last year, it is seeking to start conversations about race that it hopes will enlighten their students and make them better people. Beginning next school year, all ninth graders will be required to take a diversity seminar in order to graduate. As Lauren Lumpkin reported in The Annapolis Capital, adoption of such a rule came two days after a Broadneck High School student used a racist slur in a Snapchat message targeted at Annapolis High School's mostly African-American basketball team, which had just beaten the Broadneck team. The genesis of the half-credit seminar, which was taught as a pilot before full adoption, came after a petition called "Kool Kids Klan" circulated around Anne Arundel High School in 2017 urging students to join a white supremacy movement.

During the seminar students explore how cultural interactions influence situations and how people from different backgrounds may interpret the same situation differently, according to the curriculum. It is hard to tell how candid the discussions will be and if the class will directly take on issues such as black face, white supremacy and Confederate flags. Teachers aren't allowed to show political views, which gives some reason for pause given the racial politics of the day. But hopefully they can spur robust conversations without specifically choosing a side and make the class more than a feel-good activity.

At any rate, adopting such a curriculum is at least a first step in reaching the next generation before racist attitudes are imprinted on them for a lifetime. Every school in the state should adopt some kind of racial sensitivity training. If they're not sure where to start, the Anti-Defamation League has developed curricula and is eager to help. We need to find ways for adults to have such uncomfortable conversations about race, too.

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Perhaps if Howard County had such a course requirement, four teens wearing hoods and masks would not have spray-painted racial epithets and swastikas at Glenelg High School last May. The last of the teens was ordered to serve weekends in jail under a plea deal announced Wednesday.

It may be too late for others to be enlightened, but we should at least work to get to a place where no one can use the ignorance defense anymore.

It is hard to believe in Virginia that two highly educated men did not know the meaning of what they were doing in a state whose racist legacy and practices run deep. In North Carolina, the college yearbook of Charlotte Mayor Roy Cooper shows two members of a fraternity in white robes depicting a lynching of a man in blackface. Mr. Cooper is not shown in any racist photo, and the University of North Carolina denounced the photos and said racism is not tolerated on their campus. But why did it take until now for them to say something? If that's not racially offensive, we don't know what is.

(c)2019 The Baltimore Sun

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