Every now and then, an event comes along that explodes all our self-delusions — the myths we choose to believe about ourselves and our community.
Prior to moving to Ohio this summer, I lived for 23 years in Lawrence, Kansas. If you’re not familiar with Lawrence’s culture, it was the center of the Free State movement in Kansas in the 1850’s. It helped drive Kansas’s choice to enter the union as a Free State on the eve of the Civil War in 1861. It was burned to the ground by William Quantrill and his Missouri Roughriders in 1863 as a result of its pro-Abolition politics. It was very much at the center of Bleeding Kansas in the 19th Century.
And the city is fiercely proud of this heritage. The citizens of Lawrence wear their place in history like a badge of honor.
These days, Kansas is one of the reddest of red states, but Lawrence is a liberal stronghold. It is a tiny pinprick of progressivism in a sea of conservatives. Lawrence is equally proud of this status. It revels in spitting in the eye of the rest of Kansas. And the loathing Lawrencians feel for those outside Douglas County is returned with relish by the rest of the state. If you want to have your ideas dismissed out of hand, tell someone who is not you are from Lawrence or vice versa.
Collectively, Lawrence believes it exemplifies post-racist America, a shining beacon of the way things ought to be.
But maybe not.
Lawrence has two high schools — the older Lawrence High and newer, more modern Free State High School (there’s that Abolitionist pride again). LHS is in central Lawrence; Free State sits on the northwestern edge of town in one of the most affluent regions of town. Despite the school district’s attempts to draw the boundaries so that there isn’t a “rich school” and a “poor school,” most of the lower-income students attend LHS.
I lived in the Free State district, but my daughter listed her official address as her mother’s and therefore attended Lawrence High. She could have gone to either, since her mom and I split time with her. She chose LHS, because that’s where most of her friends went.
As you might expect, LHS and Free State have a pretty intense rivalry. It has all the classic elements of two schools across town from each other competing for who is the best at anything, especially (but not limited to) sports. Free State has been on a win streak in football, which frustrates the LHS students to no end, while Lawrence High tends to win more of the basketball games. The two schools are balanced enough that the rivalry isn’t one-sided, which feeds its intensity.
Recently, however, the competition between the two Lawrence high schools has turned from spirited to ugly. Last year during the Free State-LHS basketball game, a number of Free State kids held up signs that read, “Ballin’ on a Budget.” My daughter and her friends were asked by Free State students, if they needed free or reduced-price lunches.
Apparently, innocuous claims like “Firebirds rule!” or “Lions suck!” were no longer good enough to assert Free State’s superiority over their cross-town rivals. Now, a certain group of students felt it was necessary to deride LHS students for being poor. As though that is some sort of a crime. As if it makes them less worthwhile as human beings.
But as demeaning and inappropriate as that was, it didn’t seem to be enough for some Free State students. Some of them decided to up the ante.
Last week, prior to the annual football game between the two schools, some students broke into the LHS football stadium and used shaving cream to write, “School of [N-word]s,” on the 50-yard-line. Not coincidentally, LHS has a much larger percentage of black students than Free State.
Yes. In proudly liberal Lawrence, some students from the school named for the Abolition movement hurled an N-bomb at their rivals.
Naturally, some LHS students retaliated. They wrote, “School of Crackers,” on the side of a Free State bus in spray paint. Hatred begets hatred. Bigotry begets bigotry.
This is what I mean when I suggest we are not living in a post-racist America. Yes, things are better than in the 1860’s or the 1950’s. Yes, we have moved a long way towards a more egalitarian society.
But we’re not over racism in the U.S. It’s not just in the South, where everyone assumes it is. It’s not just in the hearts of disgraced former NBA owners like Donald Sterling.
It’s just as likely to be found in liberal outposts like Lawrence as it anywhere else in America.
Those students , whoever they are, believe LHS is inferior because it has a lot of poor and a lot of black students. They make fun of Lawrence High not because it’s their rival school, but because of the makeup of its student body.
Racism is an ugly legacy on both human and U.S. history, and despite all the battles fought and victories won during the Civil Rights movement, the war against it is not over. Because you can enact laws and call bigotry wrong and identify it for all to see and revile.
But none of that matters if you don’t change people’s hearts. If we don’t acknowledge we still have a problem in the U.S., that racism still exists and must still be fought, we can’t stop it from spreading. We can’t stop it from thriving.
Even in places that take pride in their history of fighting it.