More than a food fight at South High—Continuing conversations about racism

On Valentine's Day, police broke up a fight at South High that started during the lunch hour and that at least some Somali students characterized as racial, according to the Star Tribune report. At the Twin Cities Daily Planet, our mission is to help community members connect and communicate about issues that matter to them. Racism is a real issue in the Twin Cities—as elsewhere in America—but it's also a very complicated issue.

The South High fight started in the cafeteria, apparently with some food thrown, and escalated to involve more than a hundred students, police, Mace, and injuries that, while described as "minor" by police, resulted in four people being taken to the hospital. 

The school district's official statement said that the school "placed on a precautionary code yellow lockdown due to a food fight that escalated into a physical fight."

"The incident took place during third period lunch. It began at approximately 12:45 p.m. and lasted 15 minutes. Staff members responded immediately to the incident and followed proper security procedures. The school resource officer and Minneapolis police responded to the matter. 

"Minneapolis Police Department (MPD) Public Information Officer Bill Palmer said two school resource officers on site were unable to handle the escalating situation and called MPD for backup. Upon arrival, police attempted to disperse the crowd but were unsuccessful. Police then formed a skirmish line, a method used during crowd control situations whereby officers link arms to form a barrier. When students failed to respond to police requests to leave, officers used a chemical agent. Mace was sprayed into the air above the crowd, not at any individual. Several students complained of the effects of mace."

In January, Washburn High School responded to a racial incident, when a few students hung a dark-skinned doll from a stairwell and then posted photos on the internet.

We've discussed racism in several articles and columns recently. Frequently, when racism is the topic, we get comments suggesting that there's just too much talk about racism and we should all get over it. (We also get a lot of racist comments from neo-Nazi and white power groups, including some too vile to publish.)

Racism still exists, and no amount of Minnesota Nice can cover up that fact. Anti-racism efforts deserve as much coverage as racist incidents. Strong leaders in our communities, including leaders in the Minneapolis Public Schools, are making great efforts to combat racism and to build connections instead of walls.

We will continue to publish articles about racism — and about the efforts of people in the community to combat it. Some of our recent articles include Sheila Regan's articles on a student-organized anti-racism group at South High and on the public forum at Washburn High School, and Julie Landsman's reflections on race in the cities and schools that ends with this plea:

For now I wish that when I suggest change in the way we do things, here in our city, in our neighborhoods, I will no longer be told, “That will never happen.”  Perhaps the next person I speak to will say, “How could we do that, how can we interrupt business as usual? “

We hope people in the community will talk, with each other, in person, and in the Daily Planet, about the hard issues of race, discrimination and disparities. 

  • The recent acts of racism against African Americans and Africans by white, black and immigrant students in two Minneapolis High Schools have been received with a number of responses. The one that has most of my attention is: “I saw it coming.” As a resident of south Minneapolis, educational consultant who specializes in African American history and culture K12 staff training I am disappointed in and hurt for the students in this district who feel alone, fearful and in emotional pain over race. I am also frustrated by the silence from the school district, administrators and other staff at Washburn and South High School. African American Registry was at South the afternoon before the South brawl collaborating with a wonderful program called S.T.A.R.T. The S.T.A.R.T. leader Kate Towle and the Registry work together often with students of all colors because of what we’ve seen; she chooses not to be silent about racial disparities. I would bet that during the South fight some student yelled “watch out” as food or a fist was coming toward one of them, a natural response if you see something harmful coming. The combination of district silence from those who “saw it coming” shows that test scores aside may hide a deeper problem. - by African American Registry on Mon, 02/18/2013 - 1:25pm
  • It is painful to know there is this kind of behaviour in our schools. But the reality is our children bring to school what they've been taught at home. As an immigrant (I consider myself as Minnesotan as my best friends who grew up here), I too know that racisim exists. When I attended high school_ not speaking English, there were very few people willing to reach out and help. I formed very negative perception of my peers. After raising two young men, I realized when we were in high school, we all needed guidance, that which often wasn't taught by parents. Learning to reach a hand, giving up some of your time to help the next person is more important to me than going on missions. I saw young adults go to all kinds of places to help "poor" people, but they weren't taught to help one of their neighbors in school. This always puzzled me. As my heritage of Iranian culture had taught me to help the people you know first, then the people you don't know. So, as an adult I had to work hard to break our short sighted perceptions of each other with the many wonderful friends I've made. It is much more difficult work to sit and engage in a deep conversation with people you know on race, enequalities of our culture than to hop on a plane, go to somewhere in South America, build something and come back. Please don't get me wrong, that work is fundamental BUT only after we can do the harder work of looking into each other's eyes and really listen to each other. I hope this is a start of difficult conversations that my dear Minnesotans often have a hard time engaging in. There are so many people who are doing this work already, one group that I am proud to have taken part in is ASDIC. This is a reminder that every parent needs to have conversations with their children. This is also where the problems will occur, as today we live in a society that loves to judge, to compete at all, there will be many parents who'll still teach their kids that they are better in race, religion, etc. - by Sima Shahriar on Wed, 02/20/2013 - 7:53am
  • I was so sorry to see the news of the riot at South. I know the work Kate Towle is doing there with the START program and that it is courageously addressing the issue of race openly with students. This is what they hunger for. Yet, given this incident and the Washburn incident a few weeks ago it makes me wonder about the district's real intent to make racial justice and issues of equity a top priority. So far the comments coming from the administration have been less than open, transparent or thoughtful in making racism a true priority. Perhaps that is because there are no standardized tests on this.We need everyone to be working on a many pronged approach to cultural competency including student discussions and support, deep and ongoing teacher training, administrative training, support and initiative, a curriculum that addresses racism and is inclusive of many perspectives, and the commitment of the entire district to get to the heart of the conflicts. Let's begin. - by Julie Landsman on Fri, 02/15/2013 - 12:05pm
  • From what we know so far, it's too easy to call this racism. This is a complicated situation between African and African-American students involving difficulties and misunderstanding between vastly different cultures and simply learning about another culture may not solve the conflict between both groups. - by Stephanie Fox on Fri, 02/15/2013 - 12:18pm

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Mary Turck's picture
Mary Turck

Mary Turck (maryturck [at] gmail [dot] com) is a freelance writer, editor, teacher, and lifelong activist, and former editor of the TC Daily Planet.


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Racism or culturalism?

It is interesting to note however that in this incident the "races" were both black.  This was a black american vs. Somali conflict.  So it sounds to me that unless you start thinking about "race" in ever smaller groupings (like the Somali break between themselves and Bantus) this is reall y not a race thing at all.  It is a cultural conflict.

Labels And Complex Issues

I think one way we shove things aside to save the trouble of actually dealing with them is to hang some sort of  threadbare label on them. There are dozens of them, but "racist" is a well-used one.  What does the label do but sort people into familiar groups that won't actually listen to each other.  Not being anywhere near these problems, I  still am certain they have more dimensions and orgins than race. In fact, if race is involved at all, it is probably in providing a familiar way to mentally structure events.  We-they is as old as organized human society, far older than civilization.  And it may provide some sort of seeing, but it also has a way of excluding anything that ill fits the structure chosen.  We need to recover all that information that categorical thinking finds inconvenient.  Did some individual insult another or hurt their feelings. Did some action follow that and create hostile groups?  Playwrights have tried to show us these sort of things at least back to Greek times.  It may be tough to get individuals to brave the embarrassment of admitting where the seed was and how it germinated. But labeling and name-calling is really, almost 100 percent of the time, a dead end.  Every body ends up with more "history" and more resentment based up their deeply held prejudices.  Police know PR too.  They can't give false information, but their professional views may distort, too.

Those involved need listening ears of people they trust who can maintain some objectivity and think through practical measures to cool tempers.