Zachary Weber (’18)
Over the past weeks, plenty of people have spoken and written in condemnation of the racist, homophobic chants from Elder’s cheering section at a recent basketball game against rival St. Xavier. They have a right to do so. I have no intention of piling on any more judgment, finger-pointing, or shaming. I am offering what I believe is a unique perspective, and an important request.
I am a graduate of Elder High School and a student at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. One of the St. Xavier students who was the target of the vicious chants was the son of Mina Jefferson, Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Professional Development at the law school, and all-around amazing person. In a bizarre way, I felt like one side of my family was hurling slurs at the other side. I read the account of the events with a sense of sadness and shame, but absolutely no surprise.
Undoubtedly, high school boys do stupid and irresponsible things all the time. I have little doubt that students at other schools have uttered similar words, and worse. Still, doing so as a unified group in front of a gymnasium full of people is an astonishingly public display of ignorance. These chants went far beyond the “boys will be boys” act of rebellion. One gets the impression that these students not only thought their words were funny, but also feared no consequences for screaming them.
Years ago as an Elder student, I sat in the same bleachers and was part of these same cheering sections. We certainly pushed the bounds of propriety with some of our cheering. In fact, I remember clearly when some of the students in the cheering section decided to chant “you suck” or “bastard”—crude, but tame by comparison—some member of Elder’s faculty would put a stop to it immediately.
This is not to say that no Elder students were racist then—some definitely were—but those who were never felt so emboldened that they publicly targeted opposing players with racist tropes. By many accounts, the chants during the recent game against St. Xavier went on for three quarters of the basketball game, giving anyone from Elder plenty of opportunity to put a stop to this behavior.
No one did.
By now, Elder’s principal has apologized repeatedly. Students from Elder went to St. Xavier to discuss the event. Elder has reported that it will discipline the responsible students and will change school policy to prevent this behavior in the future. These are all good, and frankly, necessary measures.
Nonetheless, as an Elder alumnus, I challenge Elder to push beyond the public apologies and negative publicity and get to the root of the problem. Why did this happen in the first place? Did these students believe what they were saying? Did they think it was appropriate to target individual minority students? Were they aware of how harmful their words could be? Did they fear any repercussions for a public display of racism?
I genuinely believe that Elder’s principal and students are sorry for what happened. I am confident they want to improve and prevent this type of behavior in the future. But in order to do so, I encourage Elder’s faculty to have a serious, uncomfortable talk with its students about racism, privilege, and inequality in America.
When students say “he can’t read,” point out that, on average, schools with predominantly students of color lag behind majority white schools in access to early childhood education, teacher training, and diversity of curriculum.
When students say “he smokes crack,” inform them that, although white people and black people use illegal drugs at about the same rate, black people are imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of white people for drug use.
When students say “he’s on welfare,” respond that, on average, persons of color make less money and accumulate less wealth than white people, even when accounting for education level and profession.
When students use the word “faggot,” help them understand that incidents of bullying, homelessness, depression, and suicide are disproportionately high among LGBT individuals.
Elder’s student body is a homogenous group—all boys, 93% white, mostly Catholic and middle-class. In such an environment, it might be easy to turn a blind eye to racism or pretend it doesn’t exist. After all, it’s unlikely that many of Elder’s white students have ever been in a room where no one else looked like them, or treated with suspicion because of their skin color, or had negative personality traits attributed to their race.
But put bluntly, dismissing racism as imaginary or inconsequential is a privilege unique to white people. We must go beyond avoidance of overtly racist words and actions. We must acknowledge even subtle racist tendencies—in our thoughts, our assumptions, our fears, our inclinations—and work to stop it. Only when we take this first step toward greater self-awareness can we begin to work on correcting our larger societal problems.
I love Elder and I am forever indebted to its teachers and staff for the education and formation I received there. I have many friends and family members who are Elder graduates, and a vast majority of them are compassionate, selfless men. My words here are not a condemnation of Elder High School. Rather, my words are encouragement to the Elder community—and the larger Cincinnati community—to recognize the prevalence of racism, acknowledge the harm it inflicts, and work to end it.
Zachary Weber is a graduating 3L at the University of Cincinnati College of Law. He is currently on Law Review and a fellow for the Center of Race, Gender, and Social Justice.