Students Protest Racism on Berkeley High Campus

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Friday June 12, 2009 - 09:23:00 AM

At Wednesday’s Berkeley Board of Education meeting, about 20 Berkeley High School students protested what they called campus racism. 

The students, some of them members of the Black Students Union, told the board they were protesting racist incidents on campus, including epithets and attacks by a few white students, which had created a hostile environment in the weeks before the school’s June 12 graduation ceremony. 

Wednesday’s protest came after some 300 students marched from Berkeley High School and staged a sit-in at the Berkeley Unified District Headquarters at Old City Hall June 5, demanding that the district administration organize meetings to address the problem and to recruit more minority teachers on campus to create diverse and culturally aware classrooms. 

During last week’s anti-racism rally, the students handed out flyers which said that Berkeley High’s black teachers and students would not tolerate the “racist actions taking place” on campus. The flyers specifically mentioned incidents where some white students had created a Facebook album titled “Niggas,” portraying blacks in a “demeaning, derogatory way.” Another incident involved someone posting a digitally altered picture of a black Berkeley High teacher wearing chains and a “grill” on the social networking website a few days later. 

“We understand that these actions are complicated by the fact that black people and other races use the N-word frequently and in confusingly, yet so-called ‘affectionate’ ways,” the flyer said. “We feel that the N-word should be put to rest by all races because it holds so much negative power. Many young people in our generation fail to realize its historical connotations.” 

As finals approached, students walked Berkeley High’s hallways with sings on their chests which read “I am not a n-----.” 

Berkeley High has 3,100 students, with black students accounting for about a third of the population 

At the board meeting, Berkeley High seniors Assata Harris and Xihuanel Tutashinda read aloud a list of demands on behalf of the Black Students Union, which asked the district to make African-American or ethnic studies classes a graduation requirement, create a diverse student panel to participate in the hiring of more black teachers and train all educators to be more culturally sensitive. 

Harris and Tutashinda stressed the importance of sponsoring workshops which would give students a platform to discuss issues on race, gender, religion and sexual orientation across all the different programs at Berkeley High. They also asked for “truth and reconciliation forums” where people who had committed hate crimes or acted disrespectfully toward students because of their race, gender, religion, disability and sexual orientation would be held accountable. 

Instead of requesting punitative measures, the students said they wanted to see “restorative justice healing circles” which would give hate crime offenders and victims a chance to heal. 

Addressing the board, Harris said she felt that “Berkeley High did not value students of color. 

“We want teachers of color who will be allies in our classroom,” she said. “We want cultural awareness. All of our black and brown kids are at Berkeley Technology Academy [the district’s only continuation high school]—what’s up with that?” 

The students also said they were concerned that one of the students involved in the racial attacks was going to make a speech at the high school’s graduation ceremony. 

Pastor Michael McBride of Berkeley Organizing Congregations for Action stood up to speak in support of the students during public comment, but yielded his time to Rev. Allen Williams, pastor of Berkeley’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

“We come out of deep concern,” said Rev. Williams, explaining that he had heard that some students had used hate speech on campus. He inquired about Berkeley Unified’s student code of conduct and asked the school board whether the student who had used derogatory language would be speaking at graduation. 

Williams’ question prompted district Superintendent Bill Huyett to ask Berkeley High Principal Jim Slemp, who was present at the meeting to give a presentation on the School Governance Council, whether “there were students speaking at graduation who used hate language,” to which Slemp said no. 

In an interview with the Daily Planet after the meeting, Harris said a video made by a group of junior girls at Berkeley High poking fun at black women had caused a lot of tension on campus about a year ago. The students later took the video down when confronted by some of their peers. 

The situation flared up again three weeks ago, Harris said, when a group of white 12th-grade boys created an album on Facebook which showed them posing with guns and alcohol. They called it the “Niggas” album. 

When other students, including Harris, asked them to delete the album because it was “promoting hate,” they refused, Harris said, instead changing the name to “Not the N-word.” Outraged students complained to On Campus Intervention officials, who told them that because this was taking place on the Internet, they couldn’t do much about it. The matter reached Slemp’s ears and he called a meeting to talk with parents and teachers.  

Harris said one of the boys in the group threatened her with a note on campus which said “I am going to get you.” When she reported the incident to On Campus Intervention, the student was immediately suspended. 

Tutashinda said that following the album incident, when some students discovered their teacher’s picture on Facebook digitally altered to reflect a “black stereotype,” they were angry and decided to hold a demonstration. 

“Racism should not be tolerated,” Tutashinda said. “What started as a joke made everyone more aware of people’s attitudes toward racism and race. We know that the school board can’t make all our demands happen, so we are trying to get together as a group. We will go from class to class to get everyone involved—even our teachers.” 

Berkeley Unified spokesperson Mark Coplan said the incidents reported by the students were part of a bigger picture.  

“It’s not the case of one incident or situation,” Coplan said. ‘It’s a case of overt racism inherent not just at Berkeley High but in our community. It is like a pimple on the back of the whole situation.” 

Coplan added that Assistant Superintendent Neil Smith had praised the students for their courage to stand up against the incidents, and that Huyett had decided to meet with the students and Slemp to talk about the situation. 

“It’s a great start to a resolution,” he said, 

Berkeley Board of Education Director John Selawsky said he was concerned that a few racist incidents were giving the impression of rampant campus racism.“But if it’s more than one or two students, then it may be something more serious,” he said, adding that the district was investigating the charges. 

Board Vice President Karen Hemphill said it would be premature to comment on the investigation because it was still ongoing. “It could result in student suspension which is confidential and cannot be made public,” she said. 

Hemphill acknowledged that both overt as well as subtle forms of racism were present on campus which could affect students in different ways and trigger various responses. 

Hemphill praised the students on their efforts to open up a much-needed dialogue on race relations to foster mutual understanding and respect. 

“That is part of closing the achievement gap in our schools,” she said. “Berkeley still has to address racial differences, just like the rest of the country. Just because we have an African-American president doesn’t mean we don’t have race issues.”