The New Racism
You gotta be careful with hip-hop. The members of Impact, a student dance club at Millennium High School in Goodyear, knew that. Last October, club members put together a mix tape of various artists. They used beats from this rapper, lyrics from that one, and made a dance routine every member liked and was willing to perform before the student body at an upcoming pep rally.
And everything in it was clean.
That's not easy when you're editing a bad boy like Ludacris, the Atlanta rapper who made famous the phrase, "Tell me who's yo' weed-man, how do you smoke so good?"
His current single, "Stand Up," the one Impact sampled, became a radio hit only through the work of diligent censors.
Its first verse begins:
"How you ain't gon' FUCK! Bitch out me?
"I'm the GOD DAMN reason you in VIP."
But Impact tempered Ludacris significantly, and in the end, the "dirtiest" language in the tape was a single word.
The mix tape that the mostly black members of Impact handed to their sponsor, Jill Bould, was nothing but "bits and pieces of different songs," says Ashlee Anderson, a black sophomore at Millennium then a member of Impact.
The lyrics were appropriate for school, Impact's members thought.
But Bould, who recently admitted to New Times that she doesn't listen to hip-hop, thought otherwise.
She says the word "hell" might offend someone. And she's not willing to take the chance.
"If there is someone who is at a basketball game, at a performance, and it offends that one person, that's what we need to think of," Bould says. "We need to think of everyone and think of every single word."
So Impact wasn't allowed to dance, while the school's all-white dance line has performed at nearly every sporting event at Millennium this school year.
Ultimately, the club did perform -- twice. But the few Impact members who were left at that point danced to wordless music, in a stomp performance nothing like what they had originally envisioned.
And last week, the club disbanded completely.
"It's not fair," Impact member Samone Powell, a black senior at Millennium, said late last year of the club's troubles.
But some black parents say it's more than unfair. They say it's racist.
Michael Mack has two children at Millennium. Both belonged to Impact. One tried out for the basketball team and didn't make it. Mack says it's because his kid is black. Neither child, according to Mack -- and the kids themselves -- is learning about black history at Millennium.
Mack is a soft-spoken man with a loud message. He grew up in south central Los Angeles and moved to Goodyear in 1996.
This is not the first time he's encountered racism in the West Valley.
In 2000, Mack was one of 11 African Americans to file a class-action lawsuit against Direct Marketing Services in Peoria, which alleged the employees were harassed, paid lower wages and denied promotions. A federal judge agreed and Mack shared a $700,000 settlement, the largest sum ever awarded through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission's Phoenix office.
Mack's girlfriend, Tiffeny Denman, also says there's racism at Millennium. She wants to know why the school doesn't have a black student union.
Forty-four people, including six parents, 13 students and seven former and current teachers and administrators at Millennium, were interviewed for this story, but only three parents went on the record. Even Mack requested that his middle name, Michael, be used instead of his real first name. All say they fear retaliation. Because Mack and Denman are basically the only parents willing to be vocal, Millennium's principal, Sandra Haiflich, refutes the allegations as "a couple of people banging the drums." She, along with other members of Millennium's administration, denies every allegation.
Haiflich wants to know why she first heard of the allegations from New Times, rather than from the parents. Denman says she can't get in touch with Haiflich. Another black parent, Velma Lopez, says any time she asks to speak to Haiflich, she's pawned off to a black staff member. "What, I'm not good enough to talk to the principal?" Lopez says.
If there is racism at Millennium, it is subtle. Some minority kids interviewed for this story say they've never encountered prejudice in any form. Others say they see it often.
In any case, what is happening at Millennium has piqued the interest of officials at the NAACP, the Arizona Civil Liberties Union and the Arizona Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League. One national expert says what might be happening at the school is called the New Racism: where the racist doesn't even realize he or she is being racist.
Here in Arizona, people are on the lookout for racism. The state's got a reputation.
In 1969, Arizona lawmakers opposed legislation to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.'s life. There were questions about King's ties to communism, questions about an extramarital affair. King's proponents said look to the principles he espoused, not the life he led.
Dr. King was not given a holiday in 1969, and an effort in the 1970s to honor him was denied as well.
In 1986, by then-governor Bruce Babbitt's executive order, Arizona finally got an MLK day. But Babbitt left office to run for president. The following year, Ev Mecham, who once referred to black children as "pickaninnies," rescinded the executive order in his first act as governor. In the years that followed, black entertainers told their audiences not to spend vacation dollars in this state. In 1992, Public Enemy released its music video "By the Time I Get to Arizona," which showed, among other things, the car-bombing of a governor for refusing to honor Dr. King.
Later that year, the National Football League got involved. The commissioner made a demand of the state: Either honor Dr. King with a holiday or we'll find somewhere else to play the Super Bowl in 1996. Arizona voters finally approved MLK Day.
Seven years later, a new high school opened in Goodyear. That fall, a black nuclear engineer named Ira Miles decided to make a career change, and took a job as a permanent substitute teacher at Millennium. As far as Miles is concerned, Arizona might have an MLK holiday now, but that doesn't mean that the state is free of racism.
He hasn't worked there in almost four years, but ask Miles about Millennium High now, and he'll talk for more than two hours.
According to Miles, in the fall of 1999, several black students tried out for Millennium's first cheerleading squad. None made the team. (About 7 percent of the school's population is African-American.) Despondent, the girls turned to Miles.
They told him they needed an outlet, a way to express themselves. After the meeting, Miles found Cloyce Lamb, a counselor at the school, and one of the few other black faculty members. Together, they decided something needed to happen. So they formed an extracurricular club called C.H.A.K.A., which stood for Cradle of History and Knowledge Association.
The name pleased Miles because it was distinct, yet didn't emphasize a race or ethnicity. After all, he says, "I'm not Black Miles. I'm Ira Miles."
Although the name didn't reflect it directly, the club's main purpose was to honor the Black Experience, teach it and proclaim it to the masses, yet not limit its membership to blacks.
In the beginning, C.H.A.K.A. flourished. Members volunteered, got good grades, worked in the community, attended conferences where African-American issues were discussed, and, in the spring of 2000, they put on a talent show.
Miles, Lamb and C.H.A.K.A. called it "Showtime at Millennium," and planned it for months. But because there were so many acts and so much hype, they couldn't hold it at Millennium. They held it at Agua Fria High School instead, where the auditorium was bigger.
And the place was packed. It surpassed the 750-seat capacity.
For three hours, students sang R&B, and played the trumpet and the saxophone. A punk rock band and a classically trained pianist performed. There were salsa dancers and hip-hop dancers and jazz dancers. Basically, anyone willing to show off a talent -- regardless of color -- got on the stage.
Miles was thrilled, but one thing disappointed him. Only one administrator from Millennium was in the audience, he says.
At the end of the year, Ira Miles was told he'd have to find work elsewhere. The school could no longer afford to pay for a permanent sub. He stayed involved with C.H.A.K.A. the next year, though he now subbed at Agua Fria High School. Cloyce Lamb was C.H.A.K.A.'s sole sponsor.
A few things happened over the next two school years. Millennium reinstated its permanent sub position in the spring of 2001. Miles was not asked to reapply.
In 2001 and 2002, C.H.A.K.A. did not put on a talent show. Some blame the students, others the administration, but one thing is clear: The club was falling apart.
By the fall of 2002, leading C.H.A.K.A. had become a hassle, Lamb says, looking back. The kids were irresponsible. Lamb had two sons playing baseball, one in high school, the other in college. If the group wasn't doing its work, he'd rather watch his sons play ball.
"We were always kind of spinning our wheels," Lamb recalls. "We weren't going forward. If I' m going to volunteer my time, I want to get progress out of the group. And we really weren't that productive."
As the year wore on, kids forgot their volunteer duties. Some had slipping grades. A dinner to celebrate Martin Luther King Day was called off -- the kids who were supposed to plan it had done little, if anything, Lamb says. All the kids wanted to do was dance, they told Lamb and Miles.
In the spring of 2003, they got to -- in another talent show. The show was as big and successful as the first one -- and this time, attended by Millennium administrators.
But for Lamb, C.H.A.K.A. was no longer a success. Put out by the time he had put in -- time he viewed, more and more often, as wasted, because of the kids' irresponsibility -- Lamb resigned as sponsor of C.H.A.K.A. And since Miles was not on staff and therefore could not serve as a sponsor, C.H.A.K.A. disbanded at the end of the year.
Both Lamb and assistant principal Bill McMillian confirm that no one else at Millennium wanted to sponsor C.H.A.K.A.
Last fall, there was a group of former C.H.A.K.A. members who still wanted to dance. They wanted a new club. Some sort of dancing club.
When Jill Bould, a young, white world affairs teacher, was asked to sponsor the group, the kids told her they wanted to do step dancing -- not the country-western kind, the African-American kind.
Bould agreed to be the club's sponsor, but under one condition: the kids do some sort of community service, say, work in a soup kitchen. The kids agreed.
Impact was created.
Soon there were about 35 members, some black, some Hispanic, some white. But a lot of the kids now wanted to do hip-hop dancing. Not step.
Bould told them hip-hop's not appropriate music for school -- even though, as she tells New Times, she doesn't listen to hip-hop music. She suggested jazz, but the kids didn't want to do jazz. They wanted to do hip-hop.
Ultimately, they did nothing. When the group was allowed to perform twice in January, it was to "shut them up," says Tiffeny Denman, the mother of one Impact member.
Senior Samone Powell and other members of Impact interviewed for this story say that the school's all-white dance line performs to music similar to what they wanted to use. (Minus the word "hell," obviously.) Adam Malick, the band director who oversees the dance line, declined to speak to New Times. Jill Bould wouldn't say much.
Millennium is clearly proud of its dance line. "Congratulations to our school dance line!!!" a link at the school's Web site says. "They took second place with scores of 95 at the Fiesta Bowl dance and flag competition."
There never has been information on the Web site about Impact.
And now the club no longer exists. Because the Impact members did not perform community service, Bould told New Times in December that she wouldn't sponsor the club again after this school year. No worries there -- the club was defunct by this month.
Some say it didn't have to be this way.
Ira Miles knows some of the kids in Impact because they were in C.H.A.K.A., too. "Most kids, in general, have faults. Especially when it comes to responsibility," he says. "Sometimes you've got to take the lead. Don't be frustrated. Show them how to do it."
Michael Mack, whose son and daughter belong to Impact, says, "There's no leadership. That group from the start was set up to fail."
That's not all Mack is upset about. He says there isn't enough black history and culture taught at the school.
"They don't teach us anything here," say Angel Hughes, a freshman who moved recently to Arizona from Detroit where, she says, she learned a lot more.
At issue: Black History Month, held each February.
"For Black History Month," says sophomore Ashlee Anderson, "all we do . . . is nothing."
Principal Sandra Haiflich says black history and culture are taught throughout the year. For instance, in early November, two English teachers at Millennium began their unit on the literature of the Harlem Renaissance. The unit lasted until winter break in December.
The juniors in these classes spent six weeks studying, for example, the novels of Zora-Neale Hurston or the poetry of Countee Cullen. The final projects they completed -- often collages or their own poetry -- hung on the walls of Millennium High. Principal Haiflich says, "These are just two examples of instructional units used by teachers to address cultural diversity."
A spokesman for the Arizona Department of Education says there is no mandate for the hours, days or weeks a school spends on black history or culture. However, some black figures, most prominently Martin Luther King, must be incorporated into a school's curriculum.
In any case, the charge that black history and culture are ignored in a school's curriculum is nothing new. Oscar Tillman, president of Maricopa County's NAACP, hears parents complain of it often. Neal Lester, professor of African-American studies at Arizona State University, says when students come in, unfamiliar with black literature, "I'm not surprised. Just disappointed."
But what really disappoints Michael Mack, what brought him to New Times in the first place, has nothing to do with black history or even hip-hop. It has everything to do with basketball. Mack says his son and other kids were kept off the team because they're black.
Tim Butler has been the head coach of Millennium's basketball program for four years. In that time, he has often given black players the opportunity to play in high-profile roles, particularly on the varsity team. But last October, no black students made the boys' jayvee basketball team. So Michael Mack, whose son tried out, says he met head coach Tim Butler one day at Millennium before he went to practice.
Butler refused to speak with New Times. Mack's son talked, but asked that his name not be used, as did four other minority students -- all of whom wonder if they were cut because of the color of their skin.
What follows is Mack's version of the story.
When Mack confronted Butler that afternoon in October, he wanted to know, first off, why the tryouts lasted only two days. Mack has coached before and, in his experience, sometimes you don't know a kid's name after two days.
Butler told Mack he knows talent when he sees it -- and he and his staff needed only two days to see it.
Mack asked why no black kids made the jayvee or freshman squads.
Butler said race played no role when he determined his teams. He said he's a Christian man.
Mack persisted, saying teachers today should be more sensitive to their students. He brought up Columbine. In Mack's view, what happened there was, in part, teachers' insensitivity toward struggling young men.
Mack says Butler ended the conversation.
The next day, Mack says, he got a phone call from Bill McMillian, assistant principal and athletic director at Millennium. McMillian wanted Mack to come in, saying that he was troubled by some of the comments Mack made to Butler. Mack asked if he should bring a lawyer. McMillian said if he did, he would not talk.
So instead, Mack brought a tape recorder and hid it in his coat pocket. (Under Arizona law, only one party needs to know a tape recorder is being used.)
Mack gave New Times a copy of the tape.
The father listened as McMillian and Dennis Runyon, another assistant principal, talked about the previous day. "The thing is," Runyon said, "you come in in a semi-unannounced situation . . . you go into that environment and in a single meeting when discussing [why] your son was cut, you've extended the conversation to the point of discussing the shooting at Columbine and who's at fault. That's a threat in [Butler's] view."
Mack said he was only trying to make a point about kids' self-esteem -- how teachers need to foster it as well as parents. Mack called Butler "paranoid." He called Butler "half a man" for not being present at the meeting. Mack said when he talked with Butler the day before, he was made to feel like a "second-class citizen."
Runyon said he knew what that felt like. He told Mack he came to Millennium from a high school in Philadelphia where he served as principal and where 50 percent of the student body was black. "I learned a lot," Runyon said. "I learned a lot about relationships. . . . But I also went through relationships, just to relate to what you're feeling, I had parents that wouldn't meet with me, that wouldn't talk with me, because I was white. They wouldn't come in my office. . . . So, I understand what you're saying about that. I respect that --"
"It's very bad here," Mack said. "Black parents don't get involved in a lot of things."
"I went through some experiences where I grew," Runyon continued. "I learned about that. So I understand that there's a definite" -- pause -- "feeling that can be there."
After talking more about Columbine, Mack said to Runyon, "You know, a lot of times, I feel that teachers aren't as diversified as you are. You know, maybe perhaps they should take diversification classes."
Runyon said the school's committed to diversity.
When the basketball season began two months later, three black students started varsity for Millennium.
Tiffeny Denman is Michael Mack's girlfriend and just as active in questioning school policy as he is. In early December, she wrote a letter to the school asking why it didn't have a black student union.
Denman didn't hear back, so in mid-December, she and Mack circulated a petition at Millennium asking all students to sign who were interested in forming a black student union.
Many kids tell New Times they signed because they felt they learned nothing about black history or culture in school.
Which doesn't surprise Denman, who grew up in the Valley. In school, "the only thing we learned about black people was slavery," she says.
At the start of the new year, there were 26 names on the BSU sign-up sheet.
Administrators at Millennium say if there's interest in a BSU, all the kids need is a sponsor. There is no need for a petition.
Yet Mack says he was told by assistant principal Bill McMillian that no teacher or administrator was willing to sponsor the group. McMillian denies that, saying he doesn't know about students having difficulty finding a sponsor.
For principal Haiflich, the flap over a black student union is a microcosm of the racism allegations as a whole: a group of people blowing something out of proportion until a controversy surrounds it. "I wonder," she says, pinching together her forefinger and thumb, "if some parents aren't taking a grain of salt and running with it."
Perhaps Haiflich shouldn't dismiss Michael Mack so easily. After all, he won that lawsuit from Direct Marketing Services for $700,000.
But while it's difficult to question what a federal court found to be racism, this case is much grayer. Two minority kids cut from the jayvee basketball team who spoke to New Times anonymously say Mack is seeking revenge at Millennium because his son was also cut from the team.
Mack acknowledges that his son was cut from the team, but denies the allegation. He says, "I'm fighting the good fight."
And he points to the fact that Millennium has no black student union as evidence of his broader concerns about the school.
C.H.A.K.A., in effect, was Millennium's black student union, but the club fell apart because no one wanted to sponsor it. One of Impact's biggest problems was a lack of faculty leadership, Mack and Denman say.
Too bad Michael Mack and Tiffeny Denman aren't qualified to sponsor school clubs at Millennium High.
Derald Wing Sue is a professor at Teacher's College at Columbia University. In his new book, Overcoming Our Racism: The Journey to Liberation, Wing Sue discusses the New Racism: a subtle, even unconscious form where the racist doesn't realize his or her actions. The new racist is unaware of the experiences of minorities and the stereotypes they face. Though this form of racism first appeared last century, Wing Sue calls it the racism of the new millennium. "There's a lot of unintentional racism that occurs," Wing Sue says. "These micro-assaults occur constantly to people of color."
But are they occurring at Millennium? Wing Sue says he wouldn't be surprised, but won't comment since he has not visited the school.
"You want to know the truth?" asks Ira Miles, the former sub at Millennium and co-founder of C.H.A.K.A. "Black kids see little representation [of their race] at the school." He says what the school is doing isn't blatant, but, to the black kids or their parents, it feels like it.
Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County chapter of the NAACP, vows to keep a "very close eye" on Millennium. An investigator from the Arizona region of the Anti-Defamation League says the group might offer Millennium staff some sensitivity training.
Eleanor Eisenberg, director of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union, has been in contact with some parents and students at Millennium. "We have told them that we would step in now," she says. "We are certainly willing to support them in their efforts."
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