Confronting Racism at a Long Island Middle School

The community of Roosevelt, Long Island is demanding action in the wake of a much-publicized incident of racism at Roosevelt Middle School. Images of a collage hanging inside the middle school classroom with two nooses below the words “back to school necklaces” were shared on social media, drawing outrage from the community. It resulted in the paid suspension of three staff members.

Forty-five percent of students at the Nassau County middle school are Black, and 55 percent are Latino, according to Education Department records. The Roosevelt School District was first made aware of the images on February 7, 2019, but the collage – which allegedly hung in the classroom of social studies teacher and Teacher’s Association Vice President Nancy Jones – was first circulated by Pastor Arthur L. Mackey Jr. on Facebook. Mackey, along with many of the 150 attendees at a special school board meeting on February 13, are calling for the three teachers, including Jones, involved in the creation and sharing of the collage to be fired.

“People are hurt. I’m hurt. The community is hurt and the board is certainly hurt by this event,” district Superintendent Marnie Hazelton said. “However, this is our teachable moment. Four hundred years to the year that slaves were brought to this continent, to stand here in 2019 still talking about imagery, nooses, things that were used to terrorize, to threaten, to harm and ultimately kill; we completely understand the seriousness of this matter.”

The severity of the image, as well as the alleged distribution of voodoo dolls with nooses around their necks during the week of Halloween, is particularly resonant for young, vulnerable middle school students who can unwittingly internalize messages of hate.

“[These images] teach the kids how society, how their school, doesn’t care about them…how the larger community doesn’t care about them, or the harm that this may be doing to them,” Kidada Williams, a Detroit-based writer and historian with expertise in lived experiences of racist violence, told The North Star. “Having that happen in the school for as long as it did could be something that pushed a student who was in vulnerable position to the break.”

The image of the noose conjures specific, targeted images of racialized violence in a way that defies any cries of ignorance, said Hasan Kwame Jeffries, an associate history professor at The Ohio State University.

“Blackface is terrible, it’s dehumainizing, but it doesn’t carry the same weight as the noose does. The noose is a symbol of racial terror and murder….You might as well just burn a cross.”

The Board of Education has initiated an investigation into the images and proclaimed its “zero tolerance for the display of racially offensive images” in a statement, while numerous local officials and educators also declared support for an environment free of racism. It seems as if the teachers would not be welcomed back to RMS.

“I think they should lose their jobs and I don’t think they should teach Black students,” Williams said, adding that those teachers have lost the trust of the community. “I suspect a lot of pressure is being applied to kids, parents, and the principal to be OK with it. If conversations about forgiveness and reconciliation aren’t already happening, they will be. Historically, people have thought that in order for the institution to move on, we need African Americans to ‘get over it.’”

Pastor Mackey came up through the Roosevelt school system (which also bred Eddie Murphy, members of Public Enemy, and Howard Stern), and said he hopes anyone involved with the racist images and the voodoo dolls should be removed from the school and the incidents escalated to the DEA in the form of a hate crime. “I pray for the teachers, but hatred cannot be tolerated in our community. We can forgive, but we can’t forget the racist past of America,” he told The North Star.

Long Island has its own long and complex history with slavery, which was officially outlawed in 1827 after enslaved Africans spent hundreds of years working in agriculture, tailoring, and whaling. This history often goes unacknowledged, while the country’s larger past of racial terror isn’t discussed in a way that truly educates students – or teachers – on its long-term effects.

“We don’t require, for the most part, engaging in the history of slavery, or Jim Crow, or racial terror, in a really significant way. You can say slavery is written in our curriculum and it’s about economics…but if it’s on paper, you tend not to probe it at the level that it needs to be,” Jeffries said. “You need to weave it into the curriculum from the beginning: slavery is inseparable from the history of America, the African American experience is inseparable from the history of America. So by the time you get to slavery and Jim Crow, there’s no way people are hanging nooses in the classroom.”

The lack of real education about Black history and white supremacy is the result of lackluster education policy and growing political discord. Since the election of President Donald Trump, nooses have been found in workplaces, locker rooms (including one at a police station in Nassau County), construction sites, libraries, and at the National Mall. Under the current presidential regime, “People are comfortable acting out on hate today in a way they might not have been comfortable with before,” Williams said. “One of the things we know about the Civil Rights movement and desegregation is it didn’t change the hearts and minds of people, but it changed their behavior. Hate shows itself very obviously and sometimes very subtly.”

Both Williams and Jeffries dismissed the idea that terminating the RMS teachers in question will only sow more hate. “They got to go. Let them rehabilitate in some other school district. They’ve lost their credibility. It’s educational malpractice….It’s not incumbent upon any school district or community to do the work to rehabilitate you,” Jeffries added.

The school administration, and the culture it has curated, must also be held accountable through significant, ongoing professional development and evaluation of hiring practices. “It’s far from foolproof because we all bring our cultural baggage into our workspaces. But there are certain professions where time, energy, and resources have to be devoted to working against [racism]: teachers, police officers, as well as medical professionals,” Jeffries said. “We have to invest resources to work against explicit and implicit biases. It takes intensive work to get over the trauma of believing in white supremacy.”

The events at RMS also shine light on the idea of the ever-benevolent teacher. “Some students see their teachers more than their parents…and [the three RMS teachers] brainwash the children into believing that they love them” while openly mocking the students behind their backs, Mackey said. The pastor, along with two counselors, and his wife, a mental health counselor and social worker, are counseling students at the local youth center.

“This is a local manifestation of a national problem. The broader community has to come together and make it plain to the students that you belong here, that you are wanted here, that this was a violation of trust that’s being dealt with seriously. The burden should not be on the children,” Jeffries said. “Racism, white supremacy is a disease that we have to inoculate our children against. Better to have our children have an understanding of a noose before they see one in a classroom and say, ‘What’s happening here?’”

About the Author

Jessica Lipsky is the content editor for The North Star. Her work as an editor and reporter has appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Vice, Billboard, Remezcla, Timeline and LA Weekly, among others. She regularly pens authoritative features on subculture, broke several music industry-focused #MeToo stories and also writes on the business of music.