On Martin Luther King Day in January—a day set aside to honor a man who fought against racial injustice—two black students at Boston Latin School (BLS) launched a social-media campaign to expose the racially hostile school climate they say exists at America's first and oldest existing public school. #BlackatBLS soon cast a spotlight on a string of shocking alleged incidents: from verbal slights that disparaged black students’ intelligence and identity, to classmates posting racial slurs on Twitter and Facebook and “saying nigger without fear of being reprimanded,” according to a YouTube video posted by two members of Boston Latin School’s Black Leaders Aspiring for Change and Knowledge.
The resulting social-media storm touched off a range of responses. Mayor Marty Walsh promised to investigate the allegations. Boston schools superintendent Tommy Chang called for systemwide professional development to train school officials to respond to and handle complaints of racism. “In recent months, BLS has taken steps to improve cultural proficiency at the school,” said a spokesperson for Boston Public Schools in an email. “This has included providing educational opportunities for students, faculty, and families to engage in dialogues around issues of race, diversity, and social justice in safe spaces; improving procedures to report bias-based incidents; and mandatory professional development on cultural proficiency among other efforts.” And the U.S. attorney's office in Boston announced an independent probe into possible civil-rights violations at Boston Latin School. Meanwhile as the events in Boston unleashed a series of difficult conversations on racism and campus climate, the national dialogue on black and Latino students in highly selective high schools remains centered on access and admissions.
In March, New York City’s Department of Education released the demographic breakdown for next year’s freshman class at its eight “elite” public high schools, where admission is based exclusively on test scores, and the numbers continued a dismal trend. Black and Latino students comprised a tiny fraction—according to Politico New York, just over 3 and 5 percent respectively—of the students admitted, in a school system where black and Latino children are 70 percent of all enrolled students. An unscientific analysis by Slate found similar patterns in other districts, such as New Orleans and Fairfax County, Virginia. Black and Latino youngsters were vastly underrepresented in selective high schools as compared to their numbers districtwide, and Asian students were significantly overrepresented—underscoring the complexities among student-of-color groups. Yet as educational-rights activists and elected leaders focus on diversifying enrollment in highly competitive schools, scant attention is being paid to the racial and cultural atmosphere in these institutions, and how welcome black and Latino students are made to feel once admitted to some of the country’s most elite public schools.
Omekongo Dibinga graduated from Boston Latin in 1995, and said up until the 10th grade he felt invisible. “I barely had any black teachers. The only time I seemed to get attention was if I was getting in trouble.” He moved from year to year “unnoticed and unacknowledged” until his sophomore year when he got more involved in student leadership. By senior year, Dibinga was the president of the student council and recounts his last few years at BLS as “unapologetically black.”
However, when he ran for senior class president, things took an alarming turn. As he wrote in a January blog post, on election day some of his white classmates allegedly put white sheets on their heads—distinctive attire worn by the white-supremacist Ku Klux Klan—to protest his candidacy. “A typical day at Boston Latin for me does indeed dovetail with what I read from current students,” he said, including the complacency and inaction of school administrators following incidents of racism like he experienced.
Earlier this year, similar accusations were leveled by black students at New York’s Brooklyn Technical High School—a highly ranked selective public high school—who charged the principal and faculty with minimizing acts of racism at their school. In the aftermath of #BlackatBLS, headmaster Lynne Mooney Teta apologized for her “lack of urgency in addressing racial tensions” and reaffirmed her commitment to providing a safe and discrimination-free school environment.