Public forum addresses racism in Northern Berkshire schools

Participants at a public forum last Wednesday concluded that racial tension is a fact of life in many north Berkshire schools.

The forum was organized by the Berkshire County Human Rights and Relations Task Force to consider whether the students and community at large are experiencing racial tension.

The forum, which was held at the Brayton Elementary School in North Adams, was the first in a series of three discussions to be held on the issue of racial tensions in Berkshire schools and communities.

Arnold Thomas, the minister of the First Congregational Church in Williamstown, said the second forum will look at possible solutions to the area’s racial troubles and the third forum will consider concrete measures for implementing these solutions.

The forum, which was organized by the three-year-old Human Rights and Relations Task Force attracted a range of community members, public officials and clergy from across the Berkshires.

After a brief introduction, Thomas opened the floor to the audience. He urged them to speak freely without fear of “their words coming back to haunt them.”

Through a variety of anecdotes and observations, the audience painted a picture of a community where racial tension does exist.

Students from a few different schools spoke out on the issue. One student participating in the A Better Chance program, for instance, described her feelings of anger and isolation as a black student attending a school with primarily white peers.

One North Adams resident noted that children often tend to segregate on the basis of race, seeking “safety in numbers.”

John Barrett III, mayor of North Adams, offered a possible explanation for the observed racial tension in north Berkshire communities.

Specifically, he noted that until recently there has been little ethnic and racial diversity in Berkshire communities, and hence little discussion of such issues.

Representatives from Williams College and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) argued that college students should (and very often do) play a role in the racial harmony or disharmony of Berkshire communities.

An MCLA administrator related a story of black students being persecuted by security in local stores. He said he understands why minorities might prefer not to live in North Adams when he considers this kind of blatant discrimination.

Audience members spent approximately two hours sharing stories and comments.

At the end of the discussion, Thomas asked the audience to think about the role of affirmative action in the efforts to improve race relations.

Several Williams students and faculty attended the forum, including Director of the Multicultural Center Alex Willingham.

Willingham said, “I think [the forum] involved a number of people with positive attitudes and that is evident and a good thing. I do think it is difficult to jump into a discussion of race in the Berkshires where you have so few blacks, with those of us who are familiar with more volatile race relations. Thus you inevitably get these statements about white skin diversity (notice the Mayor’s remarks) which are important but seem to be about a really different conversation than the one advertised. What was good about this meeting was the focus on the more specific issue of the students in the schools. I remain interested and excited about that and I like the focus.”

He continued, “On some of the specifics. I strongly disagree with a conversation that drifts into a backhanded condemnation of black student anger over racist treatment. This has potential for an insensitivity that I would not want to be associated with. And that gets to my final and the really big disappointment which was that they did not set a process to ensure student discussion. That was, in my opinion, a major mistake. That needs to be corrected and I think it can.”

Steven Fein, Associate Professor of Psychology, also attended the event. He said, “It was a frustrating meeting to a large extent because people had little to say that was very specific (people seemed to shy away from recounting specific incidents and instead often talked in abstractions), and little was said that could be used to attack the problem. But what was encouraging was the fact that so many people, including the mayor of North Adams, feel deeply about the issue. Again, though, it would have been 1000 times better if more students were there who could discuss specific incidents and feelings.

The Multicultural Center and Williams College were involved in some of the programs established three years ago as a result of the original project. The Williams Community Building Group who run the SPARC (Students Participating Against Racism) workshops on campus and who visit local schools were among those programs established.

The next forum in the series will be held at the Brayton Elementary Achool on October 20 from 7 to 9 p.m. The third forum will be on November 5 from 7 to 9 p.m.