Racism Within Lowcountry Schools

Madison Jennings
Madison Jennings

A digital trend has swept the Savannah community that may involve the local high school baseball star, the Beta Club president, or even the teen in your youth ministry. A ‘spam’ page (a secondary Instagram account for disseminating miscellaneous information) has uncovered a plethora of racist, antisemitic, and homophobic videos, images, and messages done by youth across the lowcountry. Amassing over 1,200 followers and counting this account has sparked debate where students and alumni can be found using racial slurs and where teachers and administrators have been caught lurking in the comment section by liking and occasionally commenting under posts. But when will these issues perpetuated by students they teach be addressed? In this time of social malaise that has upset the status quo, the school system’s role in the making and maintaining of malicious students must fall into question.

Having grown up in Chatham County schools from Islands Elementary to Marshpoint, Garrison School for the Arts, and Savannah Arts Academy, the public schools of Savannah have shaped me. But amid social tension my recollection has carried me to a darker picture- back to field trips to confederate monuments and books with the n-word splattered across pages.

Priming begins in early years of elementary school with the romanticization of the colonial era; most notably, the Georgia Day parade hosts children of all races fashioned in bonnets, breeches, aprons, and “Indian” attire as they march through Savannah’s historic squares and engage in plays honoring colonization and Oglethorpe. I distinctly recall having recess amongst the ghosts of confederate soldiers on Fort Pulaski and taught the white savior trope through the Union seize.

Black history month usually started with teachers issuing MLK coloring sheets or, if you were older, slavery. To lessen the extremity of slavery, teachers interjected Africans selling Africans.

As if black students and their ancestors brought the whip to their own back and nooses to their necks. This occurred by 5th grade and the first time black students truly recognize their invisibility is when the class reads To Kill a Mockingbird aloud in middle school and the n-word leads to stares and uncomfortable desk shift. By high school I grew to understand that education upheld the narrative of white patriarchal hegemony- an identity intrinsic to maintaining white supremacy. From AP U.S history, American literature, or one sided field trips, the erasure of marginalized voices from classrooms contributes to the continuity of racist students and leaves excluded students grappling for a semblance of self in classrooms. Yet, the classroom remains only a vessel to the larger education system.

According to Pro- Publica, the segregation index between black and white students in America stands remarkably high, meaning that the racial distribution of these groups is extremely uneven. Beach High School, originally an institute for newly freed slaves, is 89% black and 5% white, yet its white students are 2.8 times more likely to be inducted into gifted and talented programs. Based on Chatham County’s 2017 Racial Report Card, 61.7% of white students in grades 3-8 scored “College and Career ready” compared to a mere 29.7% of black students. Disparities continue beyond opportunity and into overall diversity. DeRenne Middle School’s composition is 98% non-white and 99% of students receive free or reduced lunch.

Similar socioeconomic numbers are seen in Gadsden Elementary, Shuman Elementary among many others- linking race and wealth. Compared to Tybee Island Maritime Academy School, which exists with less than 20% of its students being non-white and just 22% receiving free or reduced lunch, or Savannah Arts Academy’s 31% non-white composition and 12% free or reduced lunch receivers, a pattern arises – Chatham county schools are segregated. Not only does the school to prison pipeline exist with black students receiving 57% of out-ofschool suspension when they make up less than 30% of the population, thus, diminishing food accessibility and academic progress, it promotes the maintaining and conditioning of white dominance.

What we are finding online is that racism does not simply reside in societies’ extremities like Charlottesville, the Emanuel AME Church massacre, the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or Breonna Taylor, it can exist in digital aggressions like black fishing or the kid in history class using the n-word on Snapchat. The leading students in these acts attend predominantly white and wealthier schools, having grown up in similar educational environments throughout their life. Though the nurturing and priming of children has roots in familial upbringing, the school system has made an undeniable impression upon the psyches of all children by segregation and discarding identity. Choosing to venerate confederate monuments and Civil War paraphernalia instead of teaching children of the lowcountry about Africans laying downtown’s cobblestone and West Broad Street, now Martin Luther King Boulevard, once being the black social and commercial main street with virtually 200 black-owned businesses, a theatre, pharmacy, and bank with the Gullah folk remaining just miles from schools, choosing to read Heart of Darkness over diverse literature, choosing to uphold segregated schools than to address disparities, and choosing to stay silent rather than acknowledge bigoted students reinforces that black lives only matter when the curriculum allows. Black identity breathes beyond a month or a standard in classrooms.

Students and alumni can “cancel” racist students by reporting to colleges, coaches, and principals, but the problem occurs beyond the individual and resides in the collective space.

Choosing to reprimand individual students does not serve the collective school when pedagogies and districts are platforms of which these students gain the agency for their derogatory behaviour. Lowcountry schools must assess their curriculum, history, and accessibility by engaging education as a healing tool. But most importantly, the school system must answer the overarching question: How do we ensure justice for marginalized students?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.