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Was this incident in Clark an act of racism or a colossal misunderstanding?

Arthur Johnson High School in Clark
Arthur Johnson High School in Clark (Google Street View)

Officials at Arthur L. Johnson High School in Clark, NJ are investigating what’s being called a hostile and racist incident aimed at a visiting Plainfield High School girls basketball team. They were given a room in which to wait and prep for the game, and in that room was left a black puppet or dummy that appeared to be hanging by a string around its neck. A basketball was attached to the dummy. According to the Plainfield team’s head coach, Keshon Bennett, other dummies were placed around the room as well.

Girls basketball team finds black mannequin strung up in Clark changing room

Could there be any other reason for this other than a racist Clark team sending a hateful message? It seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

But what if I told you the room the visiting team was given is right across from the gym and is used for a puppetry class? According to the school, that’s exactly the case. Which totally explains other dummies being left around the room. And what if I told you a parent has come forward to explain the offending dummy in question is a class project where students had to create a puppet of a famous person and this particular student’s project was meant to be LeBron James? Would this make any difference? It appears this could have been a colossal misunderstanding.

Then it brings up the question of how far we ought to go in realizing how things will be perceived. Plainfield’s population is 50% African-American. Clark’s population is 0.8% African-American. I lived there for just one year as a kid. Did I feel some people in town were racists? Absolutely. I heard stories as a kid of how protective homeowners were in never selling to black families and keeping the town white. Did I feel all people in town were racists? Absolutely not. There were some extremely snotty, privileged kids with horrible attitudes but there were also really nice open-minded kids as well. What I think the real question here is whether it was racist to not even think about the perception of a visiting team. Is Clark, with so few blacks living there, so oblivious to what a black puppet hanging by a string would look like to a visiting team? Was it wrong for adults at the school to not step out of their own white skin long enough to think about perceptions and be caretaking of other people’s feelings? Or is that not their burden whatsoever? Is it ridiculous to ask a mostly white school to scan every situation with a politically correct eye and remove possibly offensive items ‘just in case’?

All I know for sure is I don’t believe this was done on purpose or with malice. I don’t believe this was a racist incident. Kids growing up in Clark might live in a mostly white town with a less than 1% African-American population, yes. But they live in a town that borders Rahway and Linden. They don’t live in a bubble and I don’t think this was overt racism. The most anyone here is probably guilty of is not thinking ahead about appearances, and is that even a crime?

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