Sunday, February 29, 2004

'Too white'? Peers bully black students

Peter Bronson

Lafayette Bloom Middle School in the West End was built in 1915 - it just looks a lot older. A giant black-and-white photograph in the main office shows Cincinnati's riverfront - with steamboats parked on the banks.

Some things don't change, though. The day Bloom opened, some poor kid was probably bullied at school. The day I visited, I was with an angry mom who took her son out of class so he could tell me what's happening to him.

"People stealing my stuff, making fun of me, hitting me in the head," he said, almost whispering to the sidewalk as he sat on a bench outdoors. On some days, his mother puts extra sandwiches in his sack lunches because other boys steal his lunch if he doesn't "share."

"When he catches the 49 (bus) to school, he leaves with nice broad shoulders and his head up," she said. "By the time he crosses to the bus stop, he has Don Knotts shoulders."

The same sad story is repeated wherever mean kids torment nice kids. But here's a twist: The mother and her son are black. And she says he is being bullied for acting "too white."

"They call it being 'soft,' " she said. "Because he speaks the king's English and has manners, because his belt does define his waistline and not the crack of his butt, because he speaks like a white boy, he catches hell every day."

This week, when the Enquirer reported that black students are disciplined more often, at least one black mom said the schools are not tough enough. "You ever wonder how come the Cincinnati Police have the problems with black kids running and shooting? The schools spoil them and look the other way."

Cincinnati Public Schools board member Sally Warner said the "too white" problem has not been discussed by the board. "I think the issue exists everywhere, but at some schools it doesn't get addressed,'' she said. "It might be a bigger cultural problem than just a school problem."

Superintendent Alton Frailey's spokeswoman, Janet Walsh, said, "Bullying is bullying. It's unacceptable no matter what the color of the victim and perpetrator."

John McWhorter, black author of Losing the Race, says anti-intellectualism is as common as the hip-hop culture he blames: "By glamorizing life in the 'war zone,' it has made it harder for many of the kids stuck there to extricate themselves."

The Bloom mom calls it "the thug life." She said, "We're not perfect, wonderful people, but we're not like that anymore." She's a single mom, ex-Marine and college student. Her son has made mistakes, she said, but he's trying to do catch up on missed school in Bloom's "Back on Track" program.

Bloom Principal Joseph Porter said he was surprised by the complaint, but promised to look into it. "We do have model students who do their homework and are on the honor roll and have no problems," he said.

But the boy and his mother said they have complained to teachers and Porter every month since September. "Nobody wants to address this," she said. "But I'm not the only parent who feels this way.

"Call it what it is. Say it. How come our leaders want to pin everything on white folks? White folks have nothing to do with this. We have to own up to our own stuff."

I think she's right. If anything else held black kids down this way, it would be a national scandal. Instead, we hide from it - or offer steamboat remedies to a hip-hop problem.

E-mail or call 768-8301.

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