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Washburn Principal Carol Markham-Cousins, right, met with students at the start of a community meeting Wednesday night to remind them of the seriousness of a recent doll-hanging incident at the school.

Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

Doll hanging is ugly reminder of the past

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD
  • Star Tribune
  • January 26, 2013 - 7:47 AM

People of a certain age felt it right away when news broke that a hanging, dark-skinned doll had been found at Minneapolis Washburn High School in Minneapolis. Though just a symbol of lynching, the incident resurrected painful memories of actual murders of blacks.

The teenaged perpetrators and their classmates might not feel it as personally as their elders, but they need to understand why such actions cannot be tolerated. This ugly incident provides a "teachable moment'' -- not only for Washburn but for the community at large. It can also help inform decisions about state history and social-studies standards.

On that score, the Washburn school staff and the Minneapolis school district responded well. Though they could have done it sooner after the Jan. 11 incident, last week they held a meeting to hear community concerns. Washburn students attended in small-group sessions run by outside facilitators. And the superintendent is reviewing the district's social-studies curriculum to make sure that students learn why the incident was unacceptable. As choices are being made about the statewide history and social-studies standards, state officials should follow that lead.

Understanding history is important, but it's also worth exploring the reasons behind the incident. Citing privacy concerns, school officials are not revealing the names of the four students or what discipline they've received. The Washburn principal says the students involved "really had no idea'' about what they did.

That's hard to believe. It's no secret that some teens can be mean and downright cruel to one another. The offenders must have known that a symbolic lynching would get a reaction. Did they think it was a funny prank? Or were they targeting a particular student or group of students?

Young people need to know that hanging dolls, nooses and burning crosses have represented serious death threats. For decades, home-grown terrorists in the South ruled by fear, using such actions to intimate blacks away from voting among other things. Those threats were sometimes carried out. Scores of African-Americans were lynched, burned to death in their homes or otherwise murdered because of their race.

That's an ugly chapter of American history -- one of many that include slavery, legal segregation under Jim Crow laws, oppression of Native Americans, imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and the deaths of workers during labor conflicts. As difficult as it is, that history must be examined and put into context along with the many positive, praiseworthy aspects of American history. In learning the unvarnished truth, students can better understand why some actions push emotional, painful buttons.

During the week that America celebrates Martin Luther King Jr.'s civil-rights legacy and leads into black history month, we'd do well to remember that understanding our past can help us create a brighter, more tolerant present and future.

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An editorial of the Star Tribune, Minneapolis.

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