Andre Perry

Why one Louisiana high school and its mascot will become a symbol of national division

It should be an honor for any marching band to perform at a presidential inauguration, but a high school that has a history and distinction of allowing the Confederate flag to be flown at sporting events should not feel flattered by the invitation.

The selection of Louisiana’s West Monroe High School to perform at president-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20 essentially gives some Trump supporters the Confederate flag raising many would like to see.

By clutching onto their rebel mascot – named after those who fought with the Confederate forces – educators in the Ouachita Parish School District, which oversees West Monroe High, are allowing the school and its students to become a symbol of national division.

Educators have a responsibility to not put students in harm’s way. And it’s just not fair to move the students of West Monroe High into the center of controversy like rooks in a political chess match between adults. Rewarding their constituents with opportunities like the one afforded to West Monroe High only fans the smoldering embers of hate.

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The racially charged rhetoric during the presidential campaign and the hundreds of reported incidents of harassment following the election make this particular inauguration remarkably perilous, particularly for a marching band that bears the rebel name.

Racial tensions surrounding Trump’s inauguration should have preempted officials from participating.

Being responsible starts with Ouachita Parish School District superintendent Don Coker, who should remove the rebel mascot from West Monroe High. That would stop racist boosters from exploiting students and help start new traditions that more families can actually rally behind.

In 2015, West Monroe High School banned Confederate flags from being flown on campus, but placed no prohibitions on wearing clothing with Confederate flags printed on it. Superintendent Coker was quoted as saying: “Our whole purpose is to try to keep the mascot and everything that we have without it causing such a distraction.”

If Coker really wanted to remove the flag, he would have changed the name of the mascot. In North Louisiana, a rebel can’t be sanitized from its original meaning. A rebel is a Confederate soldier. You don’t have to raise a flag when the flag is in the name.

And this is a chief reason why elected officials pushed for the highly decorated West Monroe band to perform. U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham credits House Majority Whip Steve Scalise with nominating West Monroe High. Both congressmen represent very conservative districts in a very conservative state. As in many states, racism is a problem in Louisiana.

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But black and brown students as well as religious minorities are being hurt and harassed in schools in the aftermath of the election. Parading a rebel doesn’t help vulnerable students in West Monroe or any other place.

Immediately after the election, incidents of harassment and intimidation spiked across the country. Most took place at schools and universities, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an anti-hate organization that tracks hate crimes.

Racist graffiti was found at Maple Grove Senior High School, located outside of Minneapolis. Students walked around the halls of York County School of Technology in York, Pennsylvania, shouting, “white power, white power.”

In its report, SPLC cited a Washington state teacher who said, “ ‘build a wall’ was chanted in our cafeteria Wed [after the election] at lunch.”

The same teacher also reported that chants of “If you aren’t born here, pack your bag” were shouted in his own classroom.

In all, SPLC reports there were 867 reported incidents of hate that occurred within 10 days after the election. Many evoked Trump’s name.

It’s hard to fathom why Talladega College, Alabama’s oldest private, historically black liberal arts college, accepted an invitation to perform at the inauguration.

A college built upon the idea of breaking down walls of segregation is now marching for a candidate who pledged to build a wall to separate us from our Mexican neighbors.

Based on Talladega officials’ acceptance, it’s difficult to imagine any circumstances in which Talladega would decline an offer.

Where have our standards gone?

At West Monroe High in Louisiana, not all the teachers think it’s a good idea to march at the inauguration — but they are not willing to go on record to say it.

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Educators must hold themselves to standards – inside and outside of the schoolhouse. School leaders will point to the learning opportunity that marching at the inauguration may bring. In this case, though, more can be learned by rescinding the invitation.

Politicians have always manipulated symbols to affirm the legitimacy of systems. But there’s nothing legitimate about white supremacy when it comes to education.

I expect elected officials to be cheerleaders for West Monroe High for its academic or musical prowess – not for its promotion of Confederate flags, rebels, negative depictions of Native Americans and mascots rooted in segregation.

Marching at the inauguration as a rebel is about preserving traditions from the past that no longer make sense. It’s not about advancing current students.

The best thing West Monroe High can do to honor the installation of Donald Trump as president is to remove their rebel mascot.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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