Editorials

Black students (and others) in Lee’s Summit asked to sing ‘Pick a Bale of Cotton.’ What?

The Star’s Editorial Board with Lee’s Summit Superintendent Dennis Carpenter

Star Editorial Board members Toriano Porter and Dave Helling talked with Dr. Dennis Carpenter, superintendent of the Lee's Summit School District, on Wed., Jan. 30, 2019, about fears for his safety following angry discussions in a Facebook group.
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Star Editorial Board members Toriano Porter and Dave Helling talked with Dr. Dennis Carpenter, superintendent of the Lee's Summit School District, on Wed., Jan. 30, 2019, about fears for his safety following angry discussions in a Facebook group.

Pop quiz: Do you think teachers and school officials who don’t see why African American students (and others) were upset to have been asked to sing, “Jump down, turn around, pick a bale of cotton” at a school concert might benefit from racial equity training?

Oh lordy, right? Maybe we should just be glad that the performance in front of parents at Underwood Elementary School in Lee’s Summit didn’t use the original lyrics from this folk song that glorifies slavery? (“Dat n----- from Shiloh / Kin pick a bale o’ cotton / Dat n----- from Shiloh / Kin pick a bale a day”)

If you’re guessing this is a wildly far-fetched and obviously hypothetical way to make a point, nope, it happened, and parents cited it as evidence of the need for inclusion training at the recent meeting when the Lee’s Summit school board shot down yet another such plan.

It was at that same meeting that school board president Julie Doane suggested that as a blond, she too has suffered the pain of oppression. While discussing the importance of diversity in hiring, she noted that, “If they’re looking for a Spanish, they might choose J.Lo over me, I don’t know.”

To her credit, Doane released a thoughtful, praiseworthy statement ahead of Wednesday night’s meeting. In it, she sounded like someone who was rethinking her assumptions and open to learning from her mistakes.

But then, the meeting started, and quickly turned into a replay of earlier ones. If anything, it was even more counterproductive.

School board member Mike Allen went so far as to accuse Dennis Carpenter, the district’s first African American superintendent, of saying that he is in his current job only “for the black students.”

“I will not sit here and let you lie on me. I will not,” Carpenter shot back. “Tell me when I said that. When?”

It was almost as though Allen was trying to provoke Carpenter.

And almost as though the majority of the board members were more interested in delaying any equity plan, as they have already done for an entire school year, than in agreeing on a solution to the achievement gap in the increasingly diverse district.

Instead of laying out a plan for the future, board members revisited why they voted “no” last week — to hiring a consulting firm recommended by an 11-member committee that included teachers and district staff. What was the point of that exercise if their work is completely disregarded?

In the second, far more full-throated statement of apology Doane released, she said that, “Since last week, I have done some soul-searching, had discussions with many people and done my best to learn more about topics that made many of us uncomfortable.

“I made those comments in a failed attempt to cut the tension and discomfort during our meeting, and I admit my own discomfort when it comes to discussing racism. I also spoke out of ignorance and from what I am realizing is a position of privilege ... I am realizing — and should have realized already — that there are aspects of my life that I don’t have to think about because I am a white woman.

“I am learning that this is a privilege that not everyone is granted — solely based on race. When I said I did not like the word privilege, I was out of line and I was wrong. I am truly sorry for my comments, and I realize that my words have hurt others and caused harm within our community as well as causing further division.”

Every word of this is right on point. Doane’s comments would have been a great way to teach our children that more important than what we don’t know is our willingness to learn. And that if you don’t get an apology right the first time, try again.

It’s crucial, though, that actions and words match.

It’s past time for the Lee’s Summit school board to stop stalling and show it really does care about all of its students. Right now, what the board is teaching children is that only some of them matter, and that delaying is an especially useful tactic when the goal is too shameful to acknowledge.

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