SACRAMENTO – Schools often focus on the “three Rs”–reading, writing and arithmetic– but students at Sacramento’s McClatchy High School have also been getting lessons in another “r”– racism.
A number of incidents have brought the issue of race to the forefront at the local campus, and its African American principal, Peter Lambert, is leading the charge to tackle the matter before it gets further out of hand.
“I think it’s good to address it, to get it out there, to deal with it. I don’t think that downplaying it is going to really get us anywhere,” shared Lambert, who has served as McClatchy’s top administrator since 2010.
“The only way that we can make change is to have those conversations to address it,” he continued.
In August, before the new school year started, a video of two White McClatchy High School students in blackface surfaced online and went viral. In the video, a male teen is seen in Blackface makeup and a female teen is seen wearing a crude mask made out of black cloth. The n-word is used throughout the video. Earlier this year, an Asian McClatchy High student enrolled in the school’s elite Humanities & International Studies Program (HISP) was allowed to include a project in the science fair in which he set out to prove that African Americans lacked the intelligence to be included in such advancement programs. In 2016, African American cheerleaders at the school complained after a coach called them out by their skin color instead of their names during a practice, prompting White students to follow suit.
Lambert says the most recent incidents are a “symptom of a larger problem.”
“It’s right now being seen as OK to express those feelings openly,” he said.
“It’s disappointing to me to see where we are as a country right now, whether it’s with the comments that are being made about immigrants or about African American athletes in reference to them expressing their feelings or just the Charlottesville incident. It’s given rise to and legitimized people that have those unfortunate views. It’s legitimized those views that are out there right now that have played into a lot of what we’re experiencing, even here at McClatchy,” he said.
In an effort to address the matter, Principal Lambert and his staff distributed a “Racial Healing” survey that allowed students to share experiences on campus, held a staff retreat and hosted a town hall session for parents and community members. Proactive actions have also included assembling a team of African American administrators, including assistant principals Ilesha Graham and Iyuanna Pease, to assist him.
“I want to focus more on the educational piece,” Lambert said.
“How do we help everyone to come to this campus and feel safe and feel welcomed and feel invited and how can we address these issues of race in a way that’s productive and that we can talk about it and we can go through and actually help students have a better outcome and a better experience and I think that it is unfortunate when you, in this day and age, especially when you go to a school like McClatchy, that is very diverse, that you bring those feelings into it, because you have been exposed to lots of individuals of all different races, backgrounds–social economic and religious– to do something that’s so inappropriate and totally offensive is very disappointing and
surprising,” he continued.
“The research project on HISP, as much as I disagreed with it, you could in some ways argue it on a scientific level and argue the hypothesis of it and have a discussion on it. For me, when someone says they hate a certain group and use a derogatory racial slur, that’s not something that you can have a debate around. That’s deep feelings, that’s just inappropriate and that’s just not going to be tolerated.”
Sacramento City Unified School District spokesperson Alex Barrios said the students are no longer attending school within the district.
Sacramento NAACP President Betty Williams says she met with the male student seen in the blackface video, after meeting with Superintendent Jorge Aguilar, along with veteran educator and activist Richard Owens.
“We discussed consequences of the student, the ongoing issues of McClatchy and the number of complaints the Sacramento NAACP has received this year with the emphasis on racism and discrimination,” Ms. Williams said.
“Although the total number has been five from this school, it sends up red flags to us, because we haven’t had any from this school in almost three years,” she continued.
The conversation with the student was an ‘interesting” one, she says. The meeting was facilitated by the boy’s father.
“The father shared his apologies, hurt, disappointment, and fear for his son’s life,” she said.
The son requested to speak with Ms. Williams alone and gave an apology of his own.
“He stated it was ‘stupid thing to do’ and that he’d lost many friends by doing it. I asked him why. I needed to know how he processed this to the point that he and his friend put on a Black face, use the n-word more than once and videotape it,” she shared.
Ms. Williams says she gave the young man a “history lesson” on the n-word. The young man, she says, was horrified to learn the roots of the word and the hate behind it and felt it should be taught in
“He didn’t truly understand what the Black students went through until he started reading some of the posting where the students indicated they are treated this way all the time by many of the school’s teachers and its students.”
Angelo Williams, a college professor whose three children have all attended McClatchy High, says the realities of American history need to be taught much earlier than is required in schools.
“Sixteen is too late,” shared Williams who teaches a sociology course at Sacramento City College, titled “Race, Class, Gender & Inequality: The Sociology of Group Conflict.”
Another parent, Jewell Hendree, says she’s glad that the school was “outed” for the racist incidents that have been happening there.
“I like when people show who they are,” she said.
Ms. Hendree, whose daughter Zori Coleman is a junior at the school, describes herself as a proactive parent.
“I want to know what’s going on,” she said.
After seeing the blackface video, Ms. Hendree and her daughter discussed the history and implications of the act.
Both Ms. Hendree and Williams say they’re raising their children to be conscious of the racism that African Americans face in this country.
Williams says what’s happening at McClatchy isn’t a one-off occurrence, that the school is a reflection of the segregation that Sacramento still finds itself in.
“I don’t envy the situation he’s (Lambert) up against,” Williams said.
“He needs to name it for what it is. He needs to ring the alarm at the highest level. There should be zero tolerance for White supremacy,” he
Williams gives Lambert “high marks” for trying to get the parent voice to teachers and administrators, some of whom have let racist displays
and behavior go unchecked in the past.
Both Williams and Ms. Hendree also say Principal Lambert could use more support from Black parents.
“We need to be visible,” Ms. Hendree said. “They (White parents) assume that we don’t care when we don’t show up.”
Ms. Hendree says she’s active on campus and participates in the School Site Council, attending meetings regularly, where she says she often sees White teachers trying to undermine Principal Lambert, simply because he is African American.
Lambert handles his detractors well, she says, by being knowledgeable, prepared and unwavering.
“When you know what you know, it doesn’t matter what anyone says,” Ms. Hendree shared.
She calls Lambert a “great principal,” but she does wish he was louder at times in his approach.
“But that’s not his style,” she said. “His style is calm and professional. I’ve never seen him get out of character. That’s one of the things that I like about him.”
African Americans make up 9 percent of McClatchy High’s student body. Whites make up 22 percent. The majority of students are Hispanic or Latino, at 43 percent.
Lambert says it’s his job to guide students, even those whose views differ from his own and that of others who look like him.
“I’m the principal for everybody.”
By Genoa Barrow
OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer