Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry and you're listening to The Takeaway. Last month in the small town of Rome, Georgia, five Black students and their parents filed a civil lawsuit against the Floyd County School District and members of the local Board of Education. Now, according to the lawsuit, there have been a number of complaints made to school administrators over racist incidents, including "a reenactment of George Floyd's murder in a school hallway."
A white student wearing a confederate flag belt who called Black students slaves. A white student who posted on Snapchat saying he wished he had a gun to kill all N-words, and numerous incidents of white students openly using racial slurs in school and on social media. The lawsuit says the students responsible for these actions were not disciplined by the school.
Also at the heart of the story is the school's dress code. Students are allowed to wear confederate flag apparel, but students at the school were told they could not wear shirts bearing the words Black Lives Matter, and in fact, were forced to turn their shirts inside out in order to avoid suspension.
Things came to a head in October 2021 during the school's spirit week. A number of white students wore confederate flag apparel, and students took turns carrying a confederate flag around campus. According to the lawsuit, one student was seen walking around campus draped in the flag. In response to those events, a multiracial group of students moved to organize a Black Lives Matter protest. Here's one of those students speaking with CBS46 in Atlanta.
Student: I felt really disrespected how the school didn't do anything about it. When we're not allowed to wear BLM stuff all over ourself and then they are allowed to carry a racist flag around.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Student organizers say they were quickly shut down by the school, who threatened disciplinary action against anyone connected to the protest. In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs allege that the school suspended only the five Black student organizers of the protest despite the equal participation in the planning of the event by white and non-Black students of color.
The plaintiffs' legal team is arguing that Coosa High School administrators and Floyd County School Board officials have violated the students' rights to equal protection and free speech, as well as protection from race-based discrimination granted under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Takeaway reached out to the Floyd County School District for comment on this story and hasn't heard back yet, but if we do receive a response we'll post it online at thetakeaway.org.
I spoke with Andrea Young, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. I wanted to understand why teenagers, all born in the 21st century, are so familiar with tropes and tools of racial terror from prior centuries.
Andrea Young: We've really seen a resurgence of that going back to the events in Charlottesville where we really saw as sort of the first public resurgence of this replacement theory. Remember the "Jews will not replace us" chanting that was going on? It seems that this far-right ideology, which was a fringe, has moved to now the mainstream of America. We hear it from members of the Congress and Senate. We hear it from people running for office.
In Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is certainly someone who has espoused both QAnon and other fringe and unsubstantiated kinds of conspiracy theories, represents this part of Georgia. Unfortunately, these ideas are not fringe anymore. They're very much in the public sphere for our children to be exposed to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have a First Amendment right during your minor years as a child?
Andrea Young: Children in elementary school do have First Amendment rights. Also, there is a responsibility of members of schools to not discriminate. But also when you have First Amendment rights, like Second Amendment rights they are limited, they're not unlimited, and so you don't have the right to direct threats at other students. You don't have the right to do things that are deliberately demeaning of other people and directed at other people in the way that we saw here.
Then also as a school, you cannot deny the rights of one group of children to wear expressive clothing if you're permitting other children to do it. If you're permitting some children to wear confederate flags, then you can't deny children who want to wear Black Lives Matter gear or symbols of that movement. There's clearly a problem in the school not only with the students but also with the way the administrators have responded.
Melissa Harris-Perry: American schools have long been sites of contestation around racial inclusion, so I asked Andrea about George's role in this history.
Andrea Young: Atlanta's initial desegregation efforts were led by college students at Atlanta University; primarily Black college students. The efforts to desegregate our flagship university, our University of Georgia, was highly contentious with students and with some legislators threatening to withdraw support from the university if it desegregated the desegregation battles in Atlanta.
What we've seen is that there is, first, a resistance to the presence of Black students in the schools that their parents pay taxes for. There is then what we see now, this more sophisticated level, which is that you're going to resist really acknowledging that they are there. You can be there as long as you're not expecting to be treated like you belong, like you're entitled to be there, or like your education is important.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This case is occurring in the context of state-level legislative action limiting the autonomy of teachers and schools to choose curriculum and materials in public school classrooms. Take Georgia Senate Bill 377. It banned certain books because of their topics, institutes a parental Bill of Rights allowing for enhanced parental control of what is taught in classrooms, and broadly bans the teaching of divisive topics. Here again is Andrea Young of the Georgia ACLU.
Andrea Young: We saw in Georgia and other places in the country, where legislatures introduced language that originated from a Trump-era executive order designed to basically prevent diversity training in the federal government. The language talks about prohibiting the discussion of divisive concepts. Things like saying that there is systemic racism in America. Saying that there is unconscious prejudice.
The legislature and the governor who made a big, big point of signing this legislation really made a point to put responsible educators on notice that they could be subject to disciplinary action for doing the very things that would address the kinds of problems that we're seeing in Rome and other schools across our state and other states as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Part of that bill though, says that it is prohibitive for any individual to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of his or her race, skin color, ethnicity. Is this potentially a basis for suit for the Black students that they in fact were meant to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, and other forms of psychological distress because they were Black?
Andrea Young: That is one of the points that was lost on-- I mean, clearly this legislation was not meant to protect Black students,-
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sure.
Andrea Young: -and the folks testifying for this were not talking about the Black and brown. Let's understand that a majority of public school students in the state of Georgia are Black, Hispanic, or Asian American. Even in this community, where I think only 7% of the students were Black in this school, but 25% of the people in this community are Black or Hispanic. Georgia, despite how it's sometimes portrayed, is very diverse, and not just in Atlanta. All across the state.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's worth noting that the ideological underpinnings of the free speech debate on college campuses, those have shifted in recent years. Whereas once it was mainly liberal and progressives who were fighting to bring controversial speakers to campus and demanding to have a space to express their views, in more recent years it's been conservative students, faculty members, and groups leading that fight. I asked Andrea about the delicate balance between ensuring free speech for all and maintaining safe spaces for students
Andrea Young: Obviously as the ACLU, our position is that the antidote to speech is more speech. I think at the same time, having been a Black student in an environment where people believed things that were not true about Black people, this is something that we really have to struggle with and wrestle with. I think we're hearing from our young people that they are empowered in a way that kids have not been earlier generations.
It's a sign of progress that our students of color are really now able to speak out and say what the impact is when these kinds of views are expressed and the way that it has a material impact on them. I think even as a civil liberties organization, we are wrestling with the implications of that.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Andrea Young is executive director of the ACLU of Georgia. Thank you for your time today.
Andrea Young: Well, thank you. I enjoyed the conversation.
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