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Amid our incessant and mind-numbing debates about the issues of the day, be it health care, terrorism or oil spills, we have been confronted by the return of a most uncomfortable issue we seem to be unable to put away for good.
It never really was gone. We just wished it would be. Every time we think we have turned in a corner in addressing our society's struggle to get black and white on the same page, we run into another roadblock.
In particular, one recent local incident reopened a raw wound. A handful of students at Lumpkin County High School were decked out in Ku Klux Klan robes as part of a historic re-enactment on our nation's sordid racial history. They wore the robes to the cafeteria, where several black students saw them and reported the incident.
We don't know what went on in the cafeteria, and whether there was more than just the sight of white kids in Klan robes that set off the other students. Though it is ironic that what began as a history lesson on racism soon played out into one that no one bargained for.
Then a second such incident was reported at Sweetwater Middle School in Gwinnett County around the same time, also with students decked out in Klan gear as part of a project. Begging the question: What exactly were these teachers and students thinking?
It's hard to say. Surely they should know that parading around dressed as Klansmen is not the same as playing dress-up in any other kind of period costume. The symbolism and history of those sordid sheets and cones shouldn't have been taken so lightly, and everyone involved needs to know that. That they failed to recognize this ahead of time is a bit hard to digest.
To everyone's credit, though, mostly cool heads have prevailed and reactions have been reasonable. Civil rights leaders visited Dahlonega, met with government and school leaders, and all came away convinced that the incident can be used to open a few more eyes. Classes and discussions on racial sensitivity and diversity will be offered to all concerned. The kids involved were not thrown out of school. And the teacher, who has been apologetic and truly seems to have had the right intentions in mind, likely will keep her job.
One reaction to these incidents from some is that it shouldn't be a big deal. Why should symbols, they ask, set off such strong emotional reactions? Whether it is Klan robes, a swastika or some other past emblem of intolerance, no flag or article of clothing committed atrocities against human beings. It's just a piece of cloth, right?
True, to an extent. Yet while we can't control the history these symbols represent, we can be sensitive in how we use them. We shouldn't forget them or what they represent, but we also shouldn't parade them. There is a fine line there, one that many cross intentionally and others without thinking, as seems to be the case in Dahlonega and Lawrenceville.
These symbols remain our national inkblot test: Different people look at the same image and have completely different reactions. We saw this during the lengthy debate about the Confederate battle emblem on the Georgia flag, one that hasn't truly passed.
Are some people merely being too sensitive? Again, it depends on the perspective. It is so much easier to judge when one hasn't been on the receiving end of racial hatred. If African-Americans are in fact thin-skinned on these issues, perhaps it is because that skin was thinned under the lash for too long and the scars still haven't fully healed. Whether anyone cares to admit it, we know it to be true.
That's why we should pay attention when such incidents come to light. Our painful racial past always lies just below the surface; it only takes a slight scratch to bring back its horrible memories. We all should remain aware of this and not overreact in either direction when those hurt feelings re-emerge.
Fortunately, from an unfortunate lapse of judgment, a community had a chance to discuss an issue that makes us feel uncomfortable. Because grown-ups actually acted like grown-ups, there was a good outcome to an unfortunate event.
The vestiges of racism are not gone, and will, like an unwelcome pest, pop up when we least expect them. When it does, we should avoid knee-jerk emotional reactions. As long as we listen to each other before judging too harshly, we can move a little closer to an understanding, and a day when the sight of a kid in a Klan robe elicits more shrugs than shrieks.
Only then can we move on, inching a little closer to the society envisioned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others before and since, one in which people are judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.