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Wrestling with Race

By Frank Gruber

July 5, 2011 -- A week ago Sunday I had the opportunity to discuss the case of the recent racial incident at Santa Monica High School involving the wrestling team with three experts: I found myself driving to Dodger Stadium with my son Henry and two of his friends, all of whom had graduated from SaMo three years ago, and two of whom had been on sports teams.

What I wanted to know from them is where, when it comes to teenaged boys, you -- or as it happens, speaking of the boys themselves, they -- should draw the line, the line being the one that separates vulgar or stupid conduct in the “teenagers being teenagers” category from the conduct that falls in the “this must be stopped because it’s bullying or racist” category.

I thought that Henry and his friends, who are all entering their last year of college now, might know something about this because I remember that when Henry was on the soccer team at SaMo he had told me that racial and ethnic name calling happened continuously, both among teammates during practice and toward opponents during games. At the time, the SaMo soccer team was mostly a mix of Latinos, “Anglos” (most of whom happened to be Jewish), and Persians, some of whom were Jewish. (Naturally there was also a kid from Fiji and one of the stars of the team was half-black and half-Latino.)

It was like one of those World War II movies where the multi-ethnic American squad outfights the racially pure Germans.

The kids in Henry’s year had all grown up together, playing in youth soccer leagues, and I can second the point School Board Member Oscar de la Torre made at last week’s board meeting, when he reminded people that athletics can help relieve racial tensions. In our largely segregated society, sports is one place where young people of different backgrounds can meet and work together.

So I knew that among the soccer players racial and ethnic slurs flew back and forth, and I asked Henry and his friends where the line was. It didn’t take them long to agree: the line was where good-natured ribbing stopped and perceived threat began, “perceived threat” not only meaning a threat from someone who might carry it out, but also something tangible that invoked a history of violence.

Henry said that his teammates could call him Jew-this or Jew-that all day long, but if someone had ever scrawled a swastika on his locker, that would be different. The equivalent for a black -- all three boys agreed -- would be a noose.

They also agreed that the person making a racial remark had the burden of knowing that the person receiving the remark would find it “okay,” that the sign of an obnoxious teammate was someone who didn’t take into account to whom he was directing his words or his actions. (This applied not only to racial remarks, but also to hazing of all kinds.) The sign of a bully, as opposed to someone who is merely obnoxious, is someone who carefully takes into account who his target is -- someone he can pick on.

Judging by the letters from Robert Forster and Neal Payton that The Lookout has published, a dispute is raging among parents as to whether what the two white wrestlers did to the African-American wrestler falls in the boys-will-be-boys category or in the racist category. Except to say that there must have been some fire to the smoke, given that the two boys who targeted the black student were suspended after the incident for three days, I’m not in a position to make a judgment. (One of the wrestlers is home-schooled, and it’s not clear how the suspension applied to him.)

But there are some points to think about regardless whether the white boys were just having fun and the black boy and everyone else are too sensitive, or if the former were racist bullies.

One is that the impact on the student who was the target should have been the highest priority of all the school officials involved, and it’s inconceivable, in that connection, that they didn’t reach out to his mother. Quite rightly the focus of most of the criticism of the administration at the high school has been the failure to notify her, and outgoing Superintendent of School Tim Cuneo has apologized for that.

One of the great social problems for decades has been the fate of African-American males, and keeping black kids, particularly boys, in school has been the major challenge not only for school systems, but also for conscientious parents like Victoria Gray, the mother of the boy who was harassed in this incident.

There are any number of factors that turn black kids off from school, and one can easily imagine that being told to keep quiet about a racial incident directed at you because the wrestling program might otherwise be in jeopardy, which is reportedly what happened here, is the kind of feedback from a school official that might make a young man believe he is of no consequence.

It wasn’t his job to tell his mother what happened.

As for the two perpetrators, they are also young men who need to be educated. Although punishment can be part of that education, there is no role for retribution, as some of the more heated comments have suggested. But they need an education on where the lines are, and how to find them. One of the ideas behind public education is to produce good citizens.

One more comment about the case. It is good that that the Santa Monica Police Department decided to refer the investigation of school officials to the Sheriff’s Department, but, speaking as someone who followed closely the controversy that surrounded the department’s investigation of Board Member De la Torre last year, the decision was anything but “routine,” as it was described in the department’s press release. But it’s also good to know that the police department learns from its mistakes.

Let’s hope the administration at Samohi does the same.

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If readers want to write Frank Gruber, email The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
The Lookout.

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