UPDATED: Part Two of a Two-Part Series
In the days following the election of Barack Obama, the U.S. has celebrated its first Black president. But in many parts of the country, particularly states that largely voted for the Republican ticket, the subject is controversial, leading to deep tensions at school and the workplace. Anti-Obama incidents have cropped up across the country, including cross burnings on the lawns of Obama supporters in New Jersey, swastikas and racial slurs spray painted on houses and cars in California, and schoolchildren chanting “Assassinate Obama” in Idaho. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 200 hate-related incidents have been reported since the election.
Kimberly Chapman of Picayune, Mississippi, says that her 13-year-old son was paddled in school last week for saying the name “Barack Obama.” According to Chapman, Picayune Junior High School, where her son attends, has enacted a policy prohibiting students from talking about the president-elect.
“The principal announced over the intercom that students weren’t supposed to talk about the election or Obama being president,” Chapman told ESSENCE.com. “My son said that everyone was being quiet about it, and afraid of getting suspended.” When a student asked him who he would have voted for, Chapman claims a teacher who overheard her son respond sent him to the principal’s office. Given the option of two days of in-school suspension or having his bottom hit with a paddle four times, he chose the paddling.
Picayune Junior High School principal James Williams could not discuss any particular student because of confidentiality, but he denies that an announcement was made banning talk of the election. He claims that after Black students at the school boasted about Obama’s win, he merely told the student body not to use offensive language or mannerisms when discussing the election.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Mississippi, however, says they have been flooded with calls from parents and students across the state, with similar allegations. “We’re continuing to receive reports of students being put off school buses, being paddled, suspended and other forms of punishment for saying President-elect Obama’s name, or talking about the election in general,” says Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Right now we’re issuing statements to the school districts reminding them that students have constitutional rights, and no student should be punished. We’re also looking at individual cases that we’ve received. This denial of free speech rights is not going to be tolerated.”
Chapman says conflict over Obama’s win goes beyond the school system. “You can’t talk about it,” she says. “After Obama won, coming into work and going into stores, you could just feel the tension brewing.” Lambright of the Mississippi ACLU says she has also received calls from adults who have been forbidden from wearing Obama buttons at work because it is considered too controversial. “The African-American community here is very proud, but people are almost talking about it isolation, in the privacy of their own homes because out in the community it’s still very racially divisive,” she says. “We’re not having these community-wide celebrations that you see in other cities.”
Chapman agrees that the celebratory mood felt in many parts of the country, is absent in some parts of the South. “The new day that we are approaching in America isn’t really a new day, not in the South.”
Read Part One: Backlash Begins Over Obama Win