School board member charges institutionalized racism at Santa Monica High

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BOE member Oscar de la Torre said Thursday at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District Board of Education’s regular meeting that “institutional racism” was responsible for inflated suspension rates for African-American students at Santa Monica High School. The comments followed a presentation made by SMMUSD staff regarding efforts to improve racial sensitivity at the school after a May 4 incident in which two white members of the wrestling team chained an African-American student to his locker and shouted “slave for sale,” and other racial epithets. A noose was also reportedly found nearby.

Citing statistics from the 2010-11 school year, De La Torre said that while African-American students comprised about 10 percent of the student population, they accounted for 31 percent of school suspensions. De La Torre said this disproportional percentage was not true of white or Latino students.

“I don’t know what you call it. I call it institutionalized racism,” De La Torre said. “I think a lot of people in this dialogue are scared of using the ‘R’ word, but we need to call it the way it is in order for us to solve it and deal with it honestly.”

District staff has been preparing a number of changes at the school the wake of the incident. Those include increasing awareness of and responsiveness to racial insensitivity and bullying, working with coaches to revise the student athletics handbook sections on bullying and hazing and reexamining the literature taught in English classes to ensure it does not reinforce racial stereotypes.

Several student members of the African-American Mentor Society at Samohi said racism was present at the school. Imani Barton, the president of the group, said instances of what has been called “micro aggression” are frequent. Micro aggression has been defined as subtle or unconscious insults made toward people of color, which have a harmful effect on campus life.

Here are De La Torre’s comments in full:

“At Santa Monica High School there’s approximately 300 African-American students, which roughly is about ten percent of the student population. African-American students make up less than ten percent of the population of the high school, but make up 31 percent of all suspensions. That means that one third of African American students-so 100 African-American students-one out of three African-American students, experienced a suspension at Santa Monica High. That statistic, that disproportionate number, does not exist for white students, and it does not exist for Latino students. And there was a lot of change from previous years. Lationo students were very similar to African-American students, but then it changed. I don’t know what you call it. I call it institutionalized racism. I think a lot of people in this dialogue are scared of using the ‘R’ word, but we need to call it the way it is in order for us to solve it and deal with it honestly.”