Racial Tension Strains Saginaw Township Relations
Armed black students raise concerns about dealing with diversity
Sarah Karush, Associated Press, Detroit News, Mar. 25
SAGINAW TOWNSHIP — No one was hurt when a seventh-grader allegedly brought a gun to school to help him fend off racial harassment, but things here haven’t been quite the same since.
The incident last month, followed by a similar one less than two weeks later involving a knife, has provoked some soul-searching about how this bedroom community just outside the city of Saginaw has dealt with diversity.
Saginaw Township, with its strip malls, modest homes and neat lawns, is a typical middle-America community. The events illustrate the enduring strength of prejudice in a society that for the most part thinks of itself as tolerant.
“The truth is that every school has a racism problem, and the only differentiation is between schools that are doing something about it and schools that aren’t,” said Mara Sapon-Shevin, a professor of inclusive education at Syracuse University. “When there’s systemic structural societal prejudice, you have to deal with it. You can’t just say, ‘Well, we’ll throw them together and hope they work it out.’ “
Since the incidents at White Pine Middle School — a serene-looking collection of low brick buildings on a spacious, green campus — black students and graduates have come forward to say that racial slurs are not unusual, and that a lack of diversity among staff has contributed to feelings of not belonging.
In the first incident, a student brought his uncle’s loaded handgun to school Feb. 18, officials said. The boy, who is black, told police he took it to school to show other students so they would stop taunting him with racial slurs.
On March 1, another black student brought a folding knife to school, officials said.
District officials responded by convening a community meeting. Participants pleaded for better discipline, greater parental involvement and efforts to rein in bullies, said Lyle Kleman, who heads the Saginaw-based Bridge Center for Racial Harmony and helped moderate the meeting. Many argued that the problem had nothing to do with race.
But others — including parents and district graduates — said the incidents should serve as a wake-up call: Racism is a real issue in Saginaw Township.
“We had a hard time living out here,” said Dana Pruitt, a 20-year-old sophomore at Central Michigan University. Her family, who moved from Saginaw shortly before she was born, was one of the first black families in the township, she said.
Sitting in her parents’ living room during spring break, Pruitt said the current problems echo a worse, but not-so-distant era in the township, which is about 85 miles northwest of Detroit.
“I’ve never been trick-or-treating because my sisters when they tried to go, the people wouldn’t open their doors for them,” Pruitt recalled.
But some community members are angry that race is being brought into what they see as purely a discipline issue.
Andrew Mulvey said the boy who brought the gun had punched his son the week before and was not disciplined. The boy has since been expelled.
“The race line is the easiest to draw,” said Mulvey, who is from Scotland and has lived in Saginaw Township for five years.
Although allegations of widespread racism have surprised many white residents, race-relations in Saginaw County have a complicated history. The city of Saginaw — which, according to the 2000 census was 47 percent white and 43 percent black — remains highly segregated.
After World War II, Saginaw Township was a place where many white city dwellers moved — often to get away from the city’s growing black population.
The township’s makeup is changing slowly. In the last census, 5 percent of the nearly 40,000 residents identified themselves as black and 4 percent as Hispanic.
In 1997, the community saw a cross-burning in front of the home of a black family. The previous year, a fight between one white and two black students at Heritage High School turned into a racial melee involving about 600 students.
Linda Sarmiento, a white Saginaw Township resident, said she has tried hard to teach tolerance to her 13-year-old son, but it is easy to see where children learn racial epithets.
“We have family, friends — a lot of people around that are very racist,” she said. “I was raised very, very prejudiced.”