Racial Tensions Boil Over at Berkeley High

Student Facebook postings using the word "nigga" create on-campus furor.

Berkeley High School’s lingering racial tensions exploded this month
in a flurry of online and verbal slurs, on-campus protests, and
disciplinary actions. The Class of 2009’s highly charged final days
ended Friday in a celebratory graduation ceremony that only partially
masked the friction recently ignited among the student body.

About two weeks ago, a white male senior posted a Facebook photo
album entitled “Niggas,” which included images of him and his Caucasian
friends in hip-hop attire with guns. The album used the word multiple
times and triggered angry responses among students, especially from the
Black Student Union.

Shortly thereafter, the same student posted a photo of
African-American history teacher Wendell Brooks, which had been
modified to outfit Brooks in stereotypical gangster paraphernalia and
wardrobe. The photo was accompanied by a caption and several comments
from both white and black students that also used the term “nigga.”

Part of the dispute involved the difference, if any, between the
words “nigger” and “nigga” — the latter of which some view as a
slang nickname and not a derogatory insult. Other students, angered by
any form of the word, brought this to the attention of Brooks, who said
he resolved the issue with the student.

One of the seniors who appeared in the original photo album also was
accused of allegedly calling a female African-American senior a “nigger
bitch” on campus. According to Taylor Brown, a member of the Black
Student Union who was nearby but did not witness the incident, the male
senior was criticizing the black students’ response to the Facebook
album, and that sparked a confrontation between the girl and boy.
Whether the term “nigger bitch” was used remains his word against hers.
The Express is not publishing the students’ names.

The culmination of these events was a walk-out on Friday, June 5, in
which more than 200 students left campus during finals and staged a
protest at the Berkeley Unified School District Office. At the June 10
school board meeting, Black Student Union members issued a list of
demands that included the implementation of awareness training, an
ethnic studies requirement for graduation, student input into the
hiring of more diverse teachers, and programs designed to initiate
discussions in the aftermath of racial incidents. School district
spokesman Mark Coplan said Superintendent Bill Huyett would address the
demands this week.

These incidents highlight the challenges officials face when
attempting to respond to online actions on social media outlets such as
Facebook. Online behavior officially occurs off campus, and such speech
is legally protected.

School officials declined to discuss the incidents with the
Express, but seem to have responded only when the behavior
occured on campus or involved a teacher. There apparently was no
tangible response in the case of the photo album, which had no
connection to the school other than the students who posted it.

Although the fate of the two main seniors remains unclear, several
students said the student who posted the photo of Mr. Brooks is facing
expulsion. He was banned from walking at graduation and a student
appeal panel at BHS will determine whether he will actually graduate
and remain eligible for admission to UC Santa Cruz. The student who
allegedly slurred a female classmate was apparently suspended for three
days. He was banned from speaking at graduation, as his fellow students
had selected him to do. He is expected to continue on to UC
Berkeley.

Black senior Kad Smith, who is friends with the two students but
also an active member of the Black Student Union, said he tried to make
both sides understand the opposing perspective. “He was desensitized to
the word,” Smith said of his white friend who posted the photo. “He
hears it every second and has friends who allow him to use it. … I
told them that they did not understand why it was insensitive and why
it would make people so upset.” Smith said he felt that expulsion was
too harsh a punishment. Smith spoke at graduation without incident,
although several members of the Black Student Union apparently
considered turning their backs on him and raising the black power
fist.

Student school board representative Eve Shames — a white
student who protested alongside the black students — agreed that
expulsion was unfair. “One guy’s life is being ruined over this,” she
said. “He said something really stupid … but he has been getting the
message for four strong years that it is okay to say it.”

Teachers, students, and parents agreed that the recent events
highlighted a larger tension within the school community. “None of this
would have exploded had it not been for underlying frustration and
preexisting issues,” said Brooks, the history teacher. Brooks said the
student who posted the “disgusting” photograph of him apparently meant
it as a joke with little appreciation of its offensiveness. Although he
said the issue is resolved between the two of them, he added that many
black students feel frustration over what they view as racism among
white students, while they often feel unjustly accused of racism due to
the actions of a handful of classmates.

Black Student Union member Taylor Brown said that the events stemmed
from underlying community prejudices but not racism. “The walk-out was
about real issues, but the events that led up to it were not really of
substance,” she said. “The class of ’09 has done a lot of growing. I
feel like this is the proudest I have ever been.”

However, black sophomores Ariana Fowler and Rikki Moore said the
protest was unnecessary and unmerited. “People blew it way out of
proportion,” Moore said. Both students agreed that many participants
knew little about the controversy and simply wanted to skip class.

Berkeley High PTSA president Mark van Krieken criticized the
administration for its lack of transparency, citing its failure to
properly inform parents of what has been happening on and off campus.
“There is a general tendency at Berkeley High to address things behind
closed doors,” he said.

Both of the two students involved in the Facebook actions declined
to comment.

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