Rann Miller: The Intersection of Grace and Racism at the Schoolhouse

By Rann Miller | Guest Blogger AC JosepH Media

I recently read a New York Times article about a young man who took to social media to address the video of a white classmate saying the n-word when failed by the educators at his school.

Loudoun County Public Schools are no anomaly.  

Sadly, the experiences of Jimmy Galligan, a biracial teen attending a school in a town named for an ancestor of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, are all too common — Black students subject to hearing the n-word spoken with impunity by white students in a school where white people make up the majority of students and educators.

READ: Camden Education Fund Launches Grant Opportunity To Support Local Youth-Serving Organizations

In schools across the country, whether public, charter or private, white educators make up the majority of educators in those spaces, but I digress.

Like Mr. Galligan, I attended a high school where white students and educators were the majority of people I interacted with each day. I heard some of my white classmates recite rap lyrics regularly, saying the n-word. I concluded that for them, use of the n-word was not off limits in regular conversation; loud conversations where few Black people were around proved me right. 

But it didn’t matter that I had heard it because I wasn’t seen.

I believe that Mr. Galligan, a freshman at the time, didn’t feel seen when his petition for justice was disregarded. He held onto the video and realizing his school had no intention on dealing with this incident, Mr. Galligan released the video on social media, the mechanism of justice, during his senior year. The repercussions to the classmate, Ms. Mimi Groves, were swift. She was removed from the University of Tennessee’s cheerleading team and was forced to withdraw from the university. 

Sadly, Ms. Groves didn’t seem to learn the lesson. 

For her, what mattered more was that her one mistake cost her an opportunity to attend the college of her choice rather than the impact of her actual mistake. However, I am compelled to consider the matter of grace for Ms. Groves in this situation. 

Maybe it is because I am a follower of Jesus Christ; maybe it is because I am a Black man and also an educator. 

Should this one incident of racism have cost Ms. Groves an opportunity to attend the college of her choosing, whether the University of Tennessee or otherwise? It is plausible to believe that Ms. Groves matured past that video and even recognized her error in that moment. It’s equally likely that Ms Groves thought nothing of the moment and continued to use the n-word beyond the video.

She only apologized for saying the n-word when her university status was at stake. However, there is an elephant in the room; whataboutism. The whataboutism in this case is that Black people use the n-word notoriously in their music, comedy and even amongst each other; therefore, if white people (and other non-Black people) cannot use the word, neither should (can) Black people.

There is a legitimate argument for why Black people shouldn’t want to use the term, but I defer to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ explanation for why white people shouldn’t use the term, whether Black people use the term or not.

The matter of grace is important to wrestle with, particularly in this case, because white people are often afforded a level of grace that Black people are not. In matters where white people are held to tasks for their previous racism and/or racist behavior, particularly during their adolescent days, the statute of limitations seems to always apply, like in the case of white athletes

It is true that a person can, and often does, mature from their freshman to senior year, and should be afforded the grace to do so. Yet I cannot help but think about Black adolescents who never received such grace, even in death. Trayvon Martin’s behavior was weaponized to exonerate his killer and Michael Brown Jr. was said to be “no angel.”

I think of the Apostle Paul, once called Saul, and his conversion on the Damascus Road. Before his conversion, Paul, a Pharisee, was a persecutor of Christians; imprisoning them and participating in state violence against them. Yet after Jesus met him on that road, Paul’s life was changed and he became an apostle; establishing churches throughout the Mediterranean, while writing roughly half of the New Testament. I believe that God can change any person in the same way, including Mimi Groves. 

But Paul’s conversion wasn’t without accountability and consequence. Paul’s meeting Jesus was Paul being held to account for the damage he had done and he was blinded. His blinding served a dual purpose; it prevented him from doing what he sought to do — punish Christians. But it also forced him to trust Jesus to show him the way to go; the way to live. Paul’s grace was not without accountability and direction. I believe that we ought to extend grace to people similar to Jesus’ extension of grace to us; with accountability.  

Without accountability, grace is converted into a hall pass to engage in destructive behavior; destructive to both others and self.

Ms. Groves was given grace, by default, without accountability; contributing to the hostile environment experienced by Black students in the Loudoun County Public School District. That is the fault of the teachers and administrators of Heritage High School who did nothing to address the concerns of Mr. Galligan. 

One may ask what role Mr. Galligan had in extending grace to Ms. Groves. However, educators at Heritage High School were in the initial position to provide Black students with justice while offering grace with accountability to Ms. Groves, whereby she may have avoided the consequence of withdrawing from the university of her choice. 

Instead, the educators at Heritage High School afforded Ms. Groves with a defunct grace, thereby perpetuating the privilege that informs the use of the n-word by white people with continued impunity. 

The consequence of forced withdrawal from the University of Tennessee, who’ve recently encountered negative publicity due to racist incidents on campus, may remain a debated topic. What is not up for debate is the need for accountability to accompany grace to facilitate both genuine reconciliation and growth; especially when dealing with race and racism.

It is important for us as Christians to hold people accountable when they’ve committed a racist action or perpetuate racism of a structural or institutional kind. There is nothing unchristian about calling out racist behavior, educating the ignorant and indicting a social structure built on white supremacy through the tools of racism, capitalism and patriarchy. We don’t disqualify white people from the opportunity to partake of the grace and mercy of God when hold them accountable for their ignorance or worse, their bigotry. 

Grace with accountability ensures that peace can flourish through the dispensing of justice.  When we fail to turn hateful moments into opportunities for accountability, education and reconciliation, we fail to dispense justice and where there is no justice, there is no peace.

Rather than call out Mr. Galligan for releasing a three-year-old video, we must turn our attention to the breakdown of systems meant to protect young people that forced Mr. Galligan to take justice in his own hands. 

Bio: Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. He spent years teaching in charter schools in Camden, New Jersey. He is the creator, writer, and editor of the Official Urban Education Mixtape Blog. Follow him on Twitter: @UrbanEdDJ.  

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