Failure of education

Last Friday, Sept. 20, Damonte Ranch High School’s Homecoming Parade and football game against rivals McQueen High School made national headlines—the kind that any school administrator would consider a worst-case scenario: “Black mannequin was dragged by a rope at Nevada high school football game,” according to NBC News. At first blush, the accompanying photo shows just that: a student dressed as a cowboy dragging a blurry, black figure wearing unrecognizable blue garb down the sidelines while onlookers cheered.

Damonte Ranch offered a statement that paints the entire thing as a series of miscommunications and separate incidents that resulted in what many took to be an overtly racist tableau, hearkening back to the dark days of mob justice and the thousands of black Americans lynched in similarly grotesque episodes throughout our nation’s history.

According to the school’s statement, the float was “Reno Rodeo” themed. Fair enough. The mannequin, a blow-up doll purchased from Amazon, was supposed to be gray and dressed in blue knight’s armor to symbolize McQueen’s mascot, the lancer, “but the only one available was black.” Okey dokey. “They couldn’t keep the mannequin standing on the float and that’s why it ended up being dragged.” Gotcha. All of these minor snafus taken individually seem relatively harmless.

But NBC’s headline is still true, and the display was indeed offensive.

Why? Because an after-the-fact statement promising harmless intent is simply not enough when the action was and is harmful to people who didn’t know the intention while witnessing it.

What was a black student supposed to think of the mannequin’s color? Or the subject matter? And why a rope anyway? Because, to many familiar with rodeo culture, that’s just what cowboys do—and that’s as much thought as the subject requires.

But the image of a black figure being dragged behind a horse has a much more loaded connotation.

The online response was predictable. “This is a hot topic and many of course are reading way too much into the incident. Slap the kids involved on the wrist and move on already,” wrote one commenter on the Reno Gazette Journal’s Facebook post of the article. Or “Oh, so now we’re back to seeing color again? … Seems to me, in my strong opinion, the need for racism outweighs the actual supply,” wrote another. Both commenters are white.

Now is the time to educate the students involved, and the rest of the student body on why such a display could be viewed as historically offensive. Many Nevada locals might be familiar with the “Hanging Tree” in Genoa, where, in 1897, Adam Uber was broken out of jail by a mob, dragged through the streets and hanged in a gruesome display of homegrown lynching. However, in response to many who think of lynchings as ancient history, James Byrd Jr., a black man, was dragged behind a truck for three miles by a gang of white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. His body was torn to pieces after two miles. The year was 1998.