With a sizable chunk of the country focused this weekend on whether professional football players would take a knee or not during the national anthem, the above photo popped up on my Facebook feed. Posted by my friend and colleague, the incredible Pittsburgh Public School librarian Sheila May-Stein, she explained:
Last night my mostly African-American, inner-city school traveled to West Virginia to play an away football game. They were confronted with THIS. Want to join me Monday in calling their Principal and demanding some answers as to why such a BLATANTLY RACIST and DISGUSTING thing was allowed to happen?
In the comments that followed on her page, and then on my own when I shared the post, some people wondered if this sign was actually racist, others suggested that getting upset was blowing things out of proportion, or an overreaction. Meanwhile, the image and wording itself was featured on the team’s Twitter account:
So is the sign racist? Here’s the letter I wrote to the superintendent of schools in Brooke County, WV explaining exactly why it is and why we need to care very much when students use Trump’s name in this way:
Dear Mrs. Shute,
I am a parent of two Pittsburgh Public School students and am writing to express my dismay that your high school students greeted our visiting team on Friday evening with a sign saying, “Trump Perry.” Pittsburgh Perry is a predominantly African American school and the football team consists of mostly non-white players.
Why are students using Trump’s name at a football game? This is more than just a clever play on words or merely a nod to patriotism (case in point: I don’t see any signs from these students at football games last fall using Obama’s name to intimidate another team). Invoking Trump as a verb to dominate, crush, or beat the opposing team is specifically calling on his white supremacy — particularly when playing a predominately Black team. The use of the current President’s name is an intentional signal to opponents that they are in “Trump” territory – and that has real meaning, especially for our Black children in this moment.
Trump is the man who said there are “many fine people” among the white supremacist terrorists who killed a demonstrator in Charlottesville. This is the man who has stacked his administration with known white supremacists, is cozy with the former KKK leader David Duke, and attacked Muslim Gold Star parents. This is the man who spent years peddling the racist lie that Obama was not born in the United States, who was sued twice by the Justice Department for discriminating against Black renters, and who took out a full page ad during the Central Park jogger case insisting that five children of color be executed (and did not relent even years later when they were proven innocent). Who calls Mexicans rapists and pardoned sheriff Joe Arpaio who has committed heinous acts against brown skinned people. This is the man who has actively tried to disfranchise Black voters, encouraged violence against #BlackLivesMatter protestors, encouraged violence against demonstrators at his own rallies, and has used racist dog whistles at every turn to whip up his supporters.
Invoking Trump’s name this weekend has even more meaning given the way in which Trump himself has politicized sports over the past few days. I am appalled that the adults in your school district not only approved of this sign, but are actively celebrating it, making it the featured photograph on the official school team Twitter page. This is what racism in America looks like today. Racists are not just those torch wielding bad guys in Charlottesville. White supremacy was on display in full red, white, and blue at your school Friday night as your students invoked racism in the name of patriotism to excite the fans.
I hope that students, teachers, and administrators alike will use this as a learning opportunity to understand the roots of white supremacy in the United States today, how it manifests, and its terrible consequences. I also hope your district will issue an apology to the beautiful children of Pittsburgh who were greeted as visitors to your home stadium with racial hatred. Coded, yes. But racial hatred nonetheless. To argue otherwise is to ignore the very meaning of “Trump Perry.”
Jessie B. Ramey
Pittsburgh Public School parent
Mrs. Toni Paesano Shute, Superintendent of Schools in Brooke County, West Virginia, issued an apology to the students of Pittsburgh! She acknowledged that the “Trump Perry” sign is “insensitive, intimidating and offensive” and she said:
“The sign’s message does not reflect our true beliefs nor what we want to reach our children. … We have a moral obligation to teach our children, and we will make this a teachable moment to instill the core values of respect and dignity for all.” (See full text below.)
Teachers and parents called the Brooke County school district over the weekend to express their concerns, and my open letter spread quickly on social media: including over 2,00 views on this blog in the first 24 hours, and widespread sharing on Facebook, especially after the piece was posted by my colleague and friend, the terrific Post-Gazette columnist Tony Norman. Molly Born at the Post-Gazette also picked up the story and quickly got an article on-line. [Post-Gazette, 9-25-17] I had also shared the letter on Sunday with Pittsburgh school administrators, urging them to act.
That kind of collective pressure got results, and Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent, Dr. Anthony Hamlet, reached out to his counterpart in Brooke County. After their conversation, Dr. Hamlet released a statement saying, “Since the presidential campaign, superintendents across the country have found themselves apologizing for the use of President Donald Trump’s name to taunt minority students.” [Post-Gazette, 9-25-17]
The Brooke County football team twitter account, apparently not authorized by the district, was also taken down. And on Tuesday, Mrs. Shute wrote a personal email to me, responding to my letter. I have to say I’m impressed by her swift actions, and dismayed that Brooke County residents have started a petition calling for her removal because of her apology. Also on Tuesday, the national news media picked up the story, where it already has 1.3k shares. [USA Today, 9-26-17]
Obviously, school superintendents should not have to be apologizing for their students’ use of the president’s name. But when that name stands for racism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, and white nationalism, then action is required. I leave you with Mrs. Shute’s apology, and some reminders that now is the time to #Resist, #StandUpFightBack. Neutrality is not an option.