Friday, July 29, 2011

If it seems too [bad] to be true...

I was reminded recently of the Tawana Brawley case by Jack Marshall’s rightfully indignant response to Al Sharpton’s being hired by MSNBC. (Don’t get me started on that one.) It appears to me we’ve got another variation on the theme: a young African-American woman making false charges about race and generating far more heat than light.

One way or another, there’s something very wrong going on in McGehee, Arkansas. Courthouse News Service reports that Kymberly Wimberly (please, God, someone tell me she goes by “Kym” or “K-Dub” or something) received only a single B in her career at McGehee Secondary School while taking AP courses and similar academically-oriented fare. That academic record gave her the highest grade-point average in her school. She claims she should have been declared the school’s sole valedictorian, and alleges in lawsuit filed in federal court that the reason she wasn’t declared as such was because she is African-American.

When I first saw this story, I linked it on the Curmudgeon Central Facebook page, exclaiming, “Are you freaking kidding me?!?!?”. I admit it: I was drawn in by the headlines. But even at the time, there was that voice in the back of my head saying the story seemed too much. Really? Someone would prevent a young black woman from being valedictorian based on race? And (in effect) say so? It just seemed like there was something we weren’t seeing. Because, as I said in a comment, “This just COULDN'T be true... could it?”. If it seems too good (or too bad) to be true, it probably is.

Certainly the case has generated a lot of coverage in both the MSM and the blogosphere. There has been little real reporting, mostly just righteous dudgeon at the horrible abuse suffered by this young woman—a mother, no less (there’s even one commentator who suggests that it’s because she’s a mother… and black… that she’s the victim here). What’s clear here is the danger—and we’re all susceptible to it—of thinking we know the pertinent information of a dispute after hearing only half of the facts.

There’s a lot of circumstantial and hearsay evidence, much of it from her mom, who is a “certified media specialist” (whatever the hell that is) at the school. According to the suit, “school administrators and personnel treated two other white students as heir apparent to the valedictorian and salutatorian spots.” The mother was told by a counselor that Kymberly would be valedictorian. But, according to the lawsuit, although Ms. Wimberly had the best grades, “other school personnel expressed concern that [her] status as valedictorian might cause ‘a big mess.’” (It’s not clear what was meant by these alleged remarks: it’s possible that it was telling Ms. Wimberly prematurely that created the problem.)

As it happens, Principal Darrell Thompson decided to name co-valedictorians, the other one (coincidentally?) being white. Whether, as he claims in a CNN story on the case, he would have made the same decision had the roles been reversed is, of course, the crux of the controversy. The suit declares explicitly that he would not have done so. Superintendent Thomas Gathen (who is African-American himself, but, in the words of the suit, “serves at the pleasure of the predominantly Caucasian School Board”) claims, and I bet you’re shocked by this, “This is strictly an academic issue and a policy issue, not a racial issue.”

There is a policy, invoked by Thompson and subsequently supported by Gathen, that “If two or more students take the same or equivalent course work and receive the same grades of ‘A,’ a student with a greater number of courses will not be penalized.” To say that the policy is poorly written is to err rather more on the side of understatement than of hyperbole. But what I think it means is this: taking an extra course and getting a B won’t hurt you in your attempt to be valedictorian, assuming you have as many A’s as your competitor. Apparently, this clause became relevant this year.

CNN reports that “Gathen said [that] Wimberly’s co-valedictorian had half a credit more than Wimberly and the difference in the students’ GPAs was .03 or .05.” (He doesn’t know which?) A half credit isn’t a lot of difference, and no one disputes that Wimberly was taking difficult courses. But the difference of a couple hundredths of a point isn’t much, either.

Wimberly and her mother claim that the school has long discriminated against its African-American students. CNN, again: “‘Black students are meant to stay in regular course levels and mostly play sports,’ Wimberly said. ‘That’s what we’re good at that that’s what we should stick to—that’s the mentality of McGehee.’” This allegation may be true, but the evidence adduced to demonstrate the purported pattern is, I must say, pretty shaky. There hasn’t been a black valedictorian in a generation, although nearly half of the school’s students are African-American. That’s enough to make one raise an eyebrow. But really, that’s all there is.

Wimberly was the only African-American in the AP English class… of seven students. Apparently the phrase “statistically insignificant” is not part of the plaintiff’s active vocabulary. Reuters says there are 340 students in grades 9-12, so the graduating class would be about 80, figuring senior classes tend to be a little smaller than freshman classes because of dropouts. It’s a small school, but that’s still enough to give the lie to the allegation in the lawsuit that “Caucasian students had to almost opt out of being assigned to the honor’s [sic.] track.” Assuming graduating classes have roughly the same demographic profile as the widely-reported 54% white statistic, and figuring 80 graduates a year, that means 43 white students per graduating class: therefore, fewer than 14% took the AP English class, barely over 9% took AP biology. Color me unimpressed with the whole “almost opt out” line of argument.

It might also be worth pointing out that the whole reason there’s an issue here is that Ms. Wimberly got very good grades, suggesting that she was not the victim of any kind of discrimination in that regard. Oh, and she told Reuters she graduated with a 4.0, although she did have that one B. That makes her either a liar or a lot worse at math than she’d like to let on. She did, no doubt, come very close to a 4.0… just as the other student did come very close to her GPA.

More significantly, what has she lost? Exclusivity. She can still claim to have been valedictorian, still put it on her résumé, still brag about it if she wants (it’s unclear whether she does want to, but her mother sure as hell does). All she can’t say is that she was the only valedictorian at her high school. And seriously, who does that, anyway? One of the local high schools in this area named six co-valedictorians a couple years ago.

As it happens, my old high school had a controversy about who was going to be valedictorian three years after I graduated. I know with that precision because one of the principal players in the case was my best friend’s brother, who appeared to be heading for valedictorian status until another student transferred in and, on the basis of less than a year’s grades, was declared valedictorian over students who had been in the system all along. Fair? Not really. But not really unfair, either. That young woman had a right to be (or to attempt to be) valedictorian somewhere. It wasn’t her fault her father got a new job. So the presumptive valedictorian became salutatorian, and the presumptive salutatorian was dropped to third position. And you know what? It wasn’t the end of the world. (Maybe “co-valedictorians” would have been a good solution, actually.)

To be sure, McGehee Secondary School didn’t cover itself with glory, either. Ann Stobaugh, the guidance counselor who told her co-worker, Molly Bratton (Wimberly’s mother), that Wimberly would be valedictorian acted unprofessionally: that announcement, clearly, should come from the principal. If Stobaugh had shut up about information that a). wasn’t final and b). wasn’t hers to disseminate, there would probably have been no problem.

The idea that someone would be prevented from addressing the school board because she filled out a form for “public comments” instead of for “public participation” is beyond stupid—and I have little trouble believing that allegation. Further investigation may lend substantiation to claims of racial bias at that school. But frankly, I doubt it.

It’s pretty clear that Mr. Thompson didn’t do a very good job of explaining his reasoning: indeed, his claim of responsibility for the decision is itself problematic, as the policy remains objective, even if arcane. It would appear that Thompson corrected an error: the other student not only could, but—according to the school handbook—had to be named co-valedictorian. There doesn’t appear to have been a “decision” other than to follow policy. It may be a dumb rule, but it’s not outrageous or discriminatory. Not enforcing it would be grounds for a lawsuit. (Thompson does get points for accepting responsibility, however, even if he did so clumsily.)

Absent more proof than they offer, it is manifest that Ms. Wimberly, Ms. Bratton, and lawyer John W. Walker seek victimhood. In doing so, they show themselves to be boorish, petty, selfish, grand-standing whiners, willing to sacrifice the reputation of education professionals for the sake of notoriety and a few dollars. Worse, they help to de-legitimize the claims those who really are the victims of racism. Such people do exist, and it is they, not Ms. Wimberly, who have lost something in this “big mess.”

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