By NEMS Daily Journal
The uproar last week over the Nettleton Public School District’s race-specific guidelines for student elections brings into focus a common practice that’s a holdover from the early days of racial integration in Mississippi’s public schools.
When schools first integrated fully in the early 1970s, formerly all-black schools were combined with mostly white schools in a tenuous and often strained union. This was social change of historic magnitude, and it wasn’t easy for any community. Some got through it better than others.
Those that succeeded tended to make accommodations to ensure that all students felt included in their new school surroundings, and this often included specifying that student government leaders, homecoming courts, class favorites and the like had to be reasonably representative of the racial makeup of the student body – or at least not all of one race. All-white homecoming courts or class officers in districts that had large numbers of black students were sources of division and polarization, not only in schools but in communities.
Few people liked designating separate white and black class presidents or homecoming queens, but in such extraordinary times these were gestures of good will and community cohesiveness by school authorities. That was the origin of policies like Nettleton’s, though its approach of designating specific offices for one race only on a rotating basis was a bit different from most such policies.
Today race-based criteria for school offices – and especially the restriction of specific posts to one race only, rather than as shared positions – seems unnecessarily divisive. No one can claim that race consciousness is not still at work in these selections even when race is not specified, but the justification which once existed for such policies is no longer as credible as it once was. Nettleton’s school board was right to rescind its policy.
Times of transition require heightened sensitivity, and few people who didn’t experience it can appreciate the delicate and volatile experience of school integration in Mississippi in the late 1960s and early ‘70s. But several decades later, race should no longer be an official criterion for school elections.
Unity and a sound educational environment today are better achieved by encouraging students to be color-blind on such matters, which is why many districts that had similar policies have eliminated them over the years.
Many schools have been successful in having diverse representation in their student elections without such policies, and today racial diversity means more than just black and white. How much better it is for that diversity to come out of genuine respect and regard for individuals rather than through categorization by race.