A racism scandal in Madison struck a national chord this week— the New York Times reported on it, CNN reported on it, Cher even offered to help.
When Marlon Anderson, a black security guard, politely asked a student to stop calling him the n-word he was fired for inappropriate language.
I’ll give you a minute to let that sink in.
The incident spread rapidly. Yes, social media expedites the spread of stories but I couldn’t help but think this story must have been bigger than just one isolated event. There had to be some universal component. So what was it about this story? What made our hearts drop when we read it?
Well, for starters, every national story seems to somehow tie back to Donald Trump. Like it or not, this is Trump’s America. He governs it. His supporters are the political majority, or were very recently. And his presidency seems to have opened a pandora’s box of racist and prejudiced rhetoric rendering people in marginalized communities especially vulnerable.
The Trump presidency has also helped strength another binary in America — that between the rich and the poor. And wealth today isn’t simply monetary. It comes with a wealth of respect, a wealth of trust, a wealth of support, whether earned or not.
Here, in the middle of two strengthening binaries stands Marlon Anderson: a black man and a security guard.
Without the protection of whiteness or the protection of wealth, Anderson was vulnerable. And the school administration preyed upon it, though the have since given him his job back.
Rather than administering a punishment that offered a path of recourse, he was given the harshest punishment an employer can give.
I thought about Anderson’s social status and wondered how this situation might have been different if Anderson had a different position at the school. What if he was Principal or Superintendent? Would the punishment have been so harsh? Absolutely not.
But, Anderson was a school security guard. And in our capitalistic society, a low wage suggests that the job takes little specialized skill. So the person in the uniform doesn’t matter, right? Anyone could do his job, right?
An attitude exists in America that people with low-paying jobs are interchangeable. People believe they have less characteristic value than a CEO or company manager.
This attitude isn’t just offensive, it is illogical.
When I was in high school I saw my principal once in my four years. Once. And I couldn’t even tell you the name of my high school superintendent.
But I saw my security guard every day. His name was Don. I haven’t seen him in four years and I still remember his name. Don didn’t just know all our names, and mind you, my school had over 4,000 students, he gave us all nicknames too. He called me Dana Day. One of my best friends from high school still refers to me as that to this day. I dreaded going to high school every day, but Don made it better. I knew I would smile at least once each day because of him.
Now tell me that is a person who is interchangeable, disposable.
From the testimonies of the students it seems that Anderson made a similar impact on the school.
Not only did Anderson know the kids’ names, teach them lessons and keep them safe, he also provided a kind face at a time when many people are at their most vulnerable — a time when mental illness is high and self-esteem is low. Anderson wasn’t just valuable, he was necessary. The kids needed him like they needed a math teacher or science teacher.
The amount of money capitalism has deemed appropriate for a person’s “skill level” should not be the way we define them. The fact that Anderson was fired over one word, despite his clearly beneficial impact on the school shows that we need to re-evaluate the way we assign value.
And what makes this situation even worse is what he was being punished for.
The school developed a “zero-tolerance policy” for offensive language to protect people of color and other marginalized students and faculty from being harmed.
West High School used its own rule, put in place to protect people of color, to hurt a person of color. The irony is baffling. It is disheartening how often we manage to give people of color the short end of the stick, even when under the guise of trying to help them.
The timing of this incident seems uncanny as it was within the same few weeks as a young Black man being put in jail for oversleeping and missing jury duty in Florida. Though, avid news-followers can probably find similar stories of Black people being harshly punished for small infractions on a regular basis.
I can’t help but place this in a larger context. Our president has made racist remarks on television and in the White House numerous times and, without fail, we always excuse him. He is never so much as criticized, let alone punished.
We place harsher penalties on a security guard than we do the president of the United States. When did our system of accountability become so backward? A white president should receive much harsher treatment for his racial attitudes than a Black security guard.
Perhaps the most ridiculous component of this whole incident was that Anderson, accused of using a racial slur, was Black. Can’t Black people have ownership over their own culture, their own history, their own future?
America has taken so much from the black community and I think we owe them every benefit of the doubt we can offer.
Dana is a senior studying journalism and theatre. What do you think about the scrutiny of marginalized folks in America? Do you think the Trump administration is at fault? Send all comments to email@example.com.