The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), a conservative-leaning legal firm, is challenging Madison West High School’s use of “affinity spaces.”
Last week, West High sent out an invitation to parents of students of color to participate in affinity spaces concerning police brutality and the recent conviction of Derek Chauvin — the former Minneapolis police officer who murdered George Floyd.
But, the email contained invitations to two different meetings — one labeled for parents of color and one labeled for white parents.
Yesterday, WILL issued a letter to Superintendent Carlton Jenkins challenging that move. WILL Deputy Counsel Dan Lennington said that the decision to host two different meetings based on skin color is segregation.
“It’s WILL’s position that this violates federal law and violates the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection under the law,” Lennington told WORT. “The civil rights pioneers and activists fought for many things and chief among them was the idea that people should be judged on the content of their character and not the color of their skin.”
This is the second time WILL has challenged West’s use of segregated affinity spaces. Last July the firm issued a letter concerning the school’s decision to separate children into separate affinity spaces for white students and students of color — which Lennington says conflicted with both federal and state law, potentially jeopardizing the school’s state and federal funding.
Lennington says that while this challenge isn’t a lawsuit, it could prompt one in the future if a parent or child claims they’ve been discriminated against by the district.
“The interesting thing about this is that after we sent this, we received numerous emails from parents and teachers which said, ‘This is not the first time,'” he says. “It’s our view that this is just the tip of the iceberg.”
West High School principal Karen Boran acknowledged yesterday in a written statement that the wording of the email lacked clarity. But she added that West will continue its anti-racist work to lift the voices of students, families, and staff of color.
In the statement, Boran explained that the affinity spaces had been, “specifically requested by students, families, and staff of color during previous discussions where they expressed frustration having to justify their experiences and perspectives.”
Boran added that affinity spaces are also used in corporations and higher education organizations. UW-Madison has different affinity groups for students who identify as Black or African-American; Asian, Pacific Islander, and/or Desi American, Native American, Latinx, or LGBTQ+. There are also affinity groups for first-generation college students and students with disabilities.
Pamela Oliver is a professor emerita of sociology at UW-Madison. She says that comparing West’s use of affinity spaces to Jim Crow-era segregation is “absurd.”
Says Oliver: “To characterize the opportunity for groups to have one conversation in an affinity group-type situation in a context in which the entire school is integrated is just an absurd comparison. It’s an overblown, inappropriate use of political rhetoric that’s — in my mind — completely out of line and just a complete mischaracterization of the situation.”
She adds that having separate spaces for people of color can actually aid integration — as it provides a space for open discussion, free of judgment.
“Often the majority think that integration means ‘Everybody has to be like us, everybody has to agree with us and if you’re not part of the majority you’re not really integrating.’ But actual integration involves respecting and listening to minority voices, and that sometimes requires minorities having the opportunity to talk to each other and strengthen their collective voice when they speak in the larger group.”
District spokesperson Tim Lemonds referred WORT to Boran’s written statement as the District’s official comment on this story.
Editor’s Note: The original broadcast version of this story mis-attributed a statement to WILL Deputy Counsel Luke Berg. The audio and web version of this story have been updated to properly attribute that statement to Dan Lennington.
(PHOTO: Element5 Digital / Unsplash)