Organizers stand by handling of Duluth's Un-Fair CampaignEven if organizers had known how controversial their Un-Fair Campaign would be — with its slogan “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white” — they said Tuesday that they wouldn’t have done anything differently with the anti-racism effort launched Jan. 24.
By: News Tribune staff, Duluth News Tribune
Even if organizers had known how controversial their Un-Fair Campaign would be — with its slogan “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white” — they said Tuesday that they wouldn’t have done anything differently with the anti-racism effort launched Jan. 24.
Racism “is really important as a community to talk about,” Duluth YWCA Executive Director Ellen O’Neil told about 30 audience members at a Duluth Area Chamber of Commerce Forum.
Swim Creative account manager Mike Malone, who helped develop the campaign, agreed. While every campaign has positives and negatives, the goal is to get people talking, he said.
“There’s no question it has caused a lot of buzz in our community,” Roger Wedin, the Chamber’s director of policy and education, said as he helped open the Forum.
The buzz generated by Un-Fair reached far beyond Duluth and has ranged from support to virulent opposition from people who claimed the campaign called all whites racist — a stand that led to Saturday’s Civic Center rally by white supremacists.
The campaign’s partners were surprised by the strong opposition to their message, O’Neil said.
“What we meant was (that) it’s hard to see racism in a predominantly white community,” not that being white made a person racist, she said. “We weren’t talking the same language.”
There was discussion within the Chamber whether Un-Fair was an appropriate subject for one of its forums, Wedin said. The monthly presentation-and-discussion sessions are sponsored by the Duluth News Tribune. Some members said, “This is a social issue; we are the Chamber,” Wedin said.
However, Wedin said, “There is a business component” to diversity.
It is important for Un-Fair’s organizers and business to work together, said UMD Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Lisa Erwin.
UMD, the YWCA and 13 other local organizations began working on the Un-Fair Campaign almost two years ago with the goal of raising awareness about white privilege and what white people can do to help reduce racial disparities. White privilege is described as white people receiving advantages in life simply because of the color of their skin.
By chance, Tuesday’s forum was held the same day that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights released a report examining racial disparities at schools nationwide.
“Minority students across America face harsher discipline, have less access to rigorous high school curricula, and are more often taught by lower-paid and less experienced teachers,” according to a news release from the office.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the findings are a wake-up call to educators, and he issued a broad challenge to work together to address educational inequities.
“The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise,” Duncan said. “It is our collective duty to change that.”
Locally, 80 percent of white Duluth high school students graduate in four years, compared to 34 percent of American Indian students and 25 percent of black students, according to 2010 Duluth school district data.
“There is something structurally wrong there,” something that won’t change until people confront the problem, O’Neil said.
When asked at Tuesday’s forum what the district could do to close the achievement gap, Un-Fair organizers said it could make changes to the curriculum and increase the number of teachers of color.
The campaign’s partners quietly began examining what they could do to eliminate racial disparities in their own organizations last summer while preparation for the public campaign continued. About 400 people saw what was planned for that, and no one foresaw the resulting controversy, O’Neil said.
The campaign included posters and three billboards designed in part to refer people to the Un-Fair website. The posters have more text, and people who see them seem less likely to misunderstand the “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white” message, O’Neil said.
But because billboards have just seconds to transmit a message to motorists, they shouldn’t include as many words, Wedin said. The only text the billboards had were the campaign’s seven-word slogan and Web address.
However, many people who saw the words “racism” and “white” in the same sentence, with no other context, misunderstood the message. And the billboards became lightning rods for criticism, Wedin said.
As planned, the original billboards were taken down after a month. The partners are preparing a second set of billboards in addition to public service announcements and refinements to the website, Malone said. Organizers will further evaluate the campaign in May.
Findings on racial disparity in US schools
Among the key findings of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights data released Tuesday were:
The self-reported data came from a national survey of more than 72,000 schools serving 85 percent of the nation’s students.
Source: Part II of the 2009-10 Civil Rights Data Collection. For more information,go to http://ocrdata.ed.gov