After Superintendent Thomas A. Gorman’s October 28th email about recently discovered “anti-black lives matter graffiti” and multiple swastikas in a bathroom stall in Ridgewood High School, I believe we should take a step back and assess the role the school’s administrators and staff play in encouraging acceptance and tolerance in the Ridgewood Public Schools community.
It is important to first acknowledge the efforts of the faculty to educate students about racial history in a meaningful way, one which shows in our English and History departments’ curricula. In particular, recent initiatives encouraging students to read books such as Malaka Gharib’s “I was their American dream” and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “The Beautiful Struggle” are effective ways to educate students about the diverse lives of fellow Americans in, what is widely regarded to be, a homogenous district. Furthermore, many liberal arts classes offered at RHS attempt to actively involve the African-American narrative when studying American history, providing personal stories of African-Americans as slaves in 19th-century America, and as civil rights activists in 20th-century America.
However, promoting educational agendas rich with valuable lessons on race relations and personal anecdotes of the discriminated against is not enough to ensure what Ridgewood aims to be: stigma-free. The incident highlighted by Dr. Gorman indicates a student body that is not fully accepting and prone to hate speech. Curricula clearly is not enough to create a welcoming, hospitable district.
According to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Ridgewood was 72.3% White (Non-Hispanic), 15.5% Asian (Non-Hispanic), 2.66% Multiracial (Non-Hispanic), and 1.2% Black or African-American (Non-Hispanic). Hispanics made up 6.49% of the White population. Compared with the greater United States, where Black Americans account for 13.4% of the population, Ridgewood is overwhelmingly White and Asian. Put simply, many Ridgewood students have not had exposure to any sort of Black role models or leaders in their lives, through no fault of their own.
It is important to understand that Ridgewood students who lack Black role models in their educational lives are disconnected from the lives of Black Americans. They generally will feel more entitled to engage in racist humor or actions. Furthermore, the consequences of racist actions are not fully realized, as they live away from those targeted by their remarks. For many students, the effects of slavery and the racism prevalent in American society have only ever been taught to them by white teachers, and therefore only exist in a fictionalized world. The racial makeup of our town and our school system is a problematic bubble, one that must be dealt with in order to improve the lives of marginalized ethnic groups in Ridgewood and produce sympathetic adults.
Ridgewood High School can attempt to solve recent and pervading issues by hiring more Black educators. RHS exacerbates the issue by employing few Black faculty or staff. Students could go their entire educational careers in Ridgewood Public Schools without ever having a Black teacher. Hiring Black educators has the potential to help fulfill the school system’s pledge to be “stigma-free.” Black teachers are not only valuable as teachers in the RHS community but also as a soft reminder of the diversity of the United States; they can remind students who too often forget that racist commentary affects real people. Black teachers and staff effectively become the needed role models in the lives of non-black Americans.
Right now, Ridgewood teaches valuable lessons on racial history and modern-day racial issues. However, the school system should go a step further. Helping students and staff see eye-to-eye on the many racial issues that affect our country can help positively influence American ideals and stances. The Ridgewood Public Schools system should ensure that students across the district have Black teachers to look up to, and should therefore look towards hiring Black educators to help Ridgewood become genuinely stigma-free.
Graphic: Ridgewood High School