Last week, Nettleton Middle School was forced to drop its 30-year policy of race-based selections for school government and homecoming positions. The selection rules were brought to light by Brandy Springer, a mother of four multiracial children in Nettleton, Mississippi. Springer, a recent transplant from Florida, said her daughter was told the office of sixth-grade class reporter at Nettleton Middle School was available only to black students this year. "My daughter came home from school telling me that she wanted to try out for the school reporter, but it is only open to black students... They told her she should run for class president, [but] that was open to only white students." Springer thought her daughter had misunderstood the information and went in search of further information. She obtained a memo that detailed the policy, and found out that it didn't stop here. The school also divides the prom and homecoming king and queen by race -- black or white only. Outraged, Springer contacted the NAACP and multiracial advocacy group Mixed and Happy: I Support Mixed-Race Families.
"My son and daughter that go to this middle school are Native American and Italian," Springer wrote on Mixed and Happy's Facebook wall. "But, we also have 3- and 6-year-olds that are African American and Italian. I would like to know which category they would lump them in."
The NAACP and Mixed and Happy wanted to know that too. They confirmed that the position of Class President was, in fact, only open to white students. What's more, eight of 12 positions were open to white students, while only four of 12 were open to Black students. In addition to uneven black and white representation, this policy apparently excludes multiracials, Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, and, most likely, Arab and Jewish Americans.
As a result of this unwanted scrutiny, the school's superintendent issued the following statement last Friday: "It is the belief of the current administration that these procedures were implemented to help ensure minority representation and involvement in the student body. It is our hope and desire that these practices and procedures are no longer needed. Therefore, beginning immediately, student elections at Nettleton School District will no longer have a classification of ethnicity. It is our intent that each student has equal opportunity to seek election for any student office."
This is definitely a win for Springer and all those who don't identify as either white or black only, but will it ensure that people from all racial groups are represented equally? The school had a response for that: "future elections will be monitored to help ensure that this change in process and procedure does not adversely affect minority representation in student elections."
Sadly, this need for "monitoring" future elections shows the legacy of black-white racial thinking and the problems with addressing racial discrimination exclusively through fixed categories: that it deprives people of opportunities to accurately describe the type of discrimination they may suffer as multiracial. According to law professor Nancy Leong, this makes it harder to protect multiracial people from discrimination based on racism. It is a hopeful sign, however, that today's growing multiracial population is challenging fixed racial categories rather than going along with the old racial program. Perhaps as our thinking and our categories change, our society-at-large will change too.