Burlington Schools’ Racism Issues, Part I: Now, Let’s Learn to Listen…Carefully

By Kevin Joseph Ryan

TNR published the story, “When The Race Card is Played…” on Tuesday, May 8, 2012. We attended the Burlington School Commission meeting held later that night, where well over 125 attendees voiced their grievances to the full Commission regarding racism and equity in the Burlington Schools. If anything was obvious, it was that the various groups involved are “talking past each other” and little communication is being achieved, based on public statements by Robert Appel, Executive Director of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, who was in attendance at the Burlington High School gathering.

There seem to be two factions bringing the issue before the School Commission at this time. There is some overlap between them, including some of the same people, but it is important to be clear that there are substantive differences between the stated issues and goals of each group. These points may be making it more difficult for the School Administration to resolve issues surrounding the students and perceived bias.

The first faction is largely the supporters of the Task Force Report on Diversity and Equity. This faction includes many actual Task Force members, who are pushing for a mandate of Cultural Competence. This would essentially make the claim that any inequities in the school between students classified as “white” and “non-white” must be based in racism. No other explanation is sufficient under the report, such as individual student performance, discipline issues, or actual student achievement. Typically, the concept of cultural competence requires that people working with minority groups simply be aware of areas of sensitivity and difference. However, the report and its advocates take this issue a step further.

In representing the interests of the Task Force itself, this faction seems to be integrating a much more sweeping agenda than simply addressing the issue of racial discrimination in the schools. In fact, many of those speaking to the School Commission seem to be openly advocating for a pro-socialist policy, rather than strictly addressing racist abuses. Several of the speakers Tuesday night, in fact, are either members of the International Socialist Organization, or met with that group prior to the student walkout of April 19 to strategize an approach to the issue.

These would include Task Force member City Councilman Vince Brennan, who has been a speaker at Left Forum as recently as March, a national symposium formerly known as Socialist Scholars Conference, as well as Liz Curry another Task Force member, who told the Commission, “We must develop appropriate and sensitive responses to institutional bias, that’s based on race and other factors that place students at a disadvantage because they do not conform to dominant white, middle-class culture upon which our society is founded.”

Actual ISO members and supporters who petitioned the School Commission Tuesday include David Buckingham, who issued a separate list of demands mirroring and expanding on the Task Force Report, Jonathan Leavitt, Kelly Burkett, former school administrator Sara Martinez de Osaba and Bill Oetjen. This group met on April 15, four days prior to the BHS student walkout, at Caribbean Corner Restaurant along with owner Patrick Brown, who also operates Burlington’s Multicultural Resource Center.

It should come then as no surprise that the student group who walked out of the High School on April 19 with concerns of racism was almost exclusively comprised of students from Bantu and Congolese families. While Oetjen told the Commission, “There’s no outside interference, this is coming directly from the students…”, the students who walked out were carrying signs painted by Oetjen, which read “Burlington demands racial & economic justice”. These same signs had been used at the City Council meeting only a few days prior to castigate Superintendent Jean Collins. Oetjen held up another such sign at the meeting which read, “…Now, let’s learn to listen.”

It should also come as no surprise that former parent coordinator Sara De Osaba and Task Force member Sherwood Smith drove the students from the meeting Tuesday, as she had following the School Diversity Committee meeting May 1, where a group of the same students were told they would be able to speak to the Committee members privately, despite that being a violation of Vermont’s Public Meetings Law. The student group walked out almost immediately, with BHS student Fama Abukir noting, “This is a set-up.”

The Diversity Task Force Report, which the School Commission did accept, but which they have not decided to implement except as a recommendation, does indeed call for equity among students, which is laudable, but makes some curious claims, such as the observation of cultural hegemony, a concept introduced by Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramski, which seeks to tear down societies by introducing doubt regarding societal standards which bind groups together, so that socialism can be introduced.

Such additions to the discussion are a distraction from the very real issues of inequity presented by the students themselves and pose the question of whose interests are being served by whatever policy the school will eventually create. City Councilor Brennan made the statement to the School Board Tuesday night, “There’s a bit of a united front here that’s giving you a message.” Question is, it one message or two?

In Part Two, we will examine what the students themselves and their families are concerned with at Burlington Schools, and the suggestions that address those issues.