Opinion

Audio Astra: A national political lie prevents rational local decisions in Kansas

October 29, 2021 3:33 am

In March, Seaman High School students organized a demonstration against its name, which comes from a former leader in the Topeka Ku Klux Klan. (Natalie Nixon)

Audio Astra reviews recent audio reporting on Kansas news, including podcasts and radio stories. Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Seaman High School name controversy

Kansas Reflector, Oct. 25, 2021

During a backyard conversation the other night with two friends, one of them asked what it was going to take to get everyone vaccinated. An employer mandate? A more contagious variant? A death in every American family? A vaccine with 100% efficacy? A desperate vaccine plea from former President Trump?

Unfortunately, universal vaccination is impossible. In fact, anything universal seems impossible in 2021 America. We can’t all agree on what is wrong or right with our country, whether it’s investigating the Jan. 6 attack, masking ourselves, funding Medicare for all, combating climate change or subsidizing child care expenses. 

It’s hard to think of anything besides cash payments for every American that everyone would support. After all, what is more American than a stack of $20 bills?

This year’s elaborate lies and political appeals have prevented us from enjoying even the simplest victories, whether a lifesaving vaccine or discarding an odious high school namesake.

The high school in question? Seaman High School north of Topeka is named after a haunting figure from the past. Fred Seaman was exposed last year as a grand cyclops of the local Ku Klux Klan. The news came from a story reported by student journalists at the Seaman Clipper, and earned a statewide reporting award for student reporter Madeline Gearhart. (Student journalists have led efforts against racist mascots long before the Washington Football Team came to its senses). 

Newspaper accounts from Seaman’s era state it simply: A Kansas public high school is named after an active and avowed racist leader.

And yet, the local community cannot agree to eliminate the name. What will motivate us to take collective action in 2021? Not even our students attending a school named after a leader in the most notorious domestic terrorism organization in U.S. history is enough.

The Kansas Reflector podcast this week provides Sherman Smith’s interview with two students from the school, Kevin Nguyen and Emma Simpson. More than a year after the first articles described Seaman’s white supremacist past, these students are fighting to rename the school, a process with a glacial pace. The two students, along with this week’s national news and Kansas news, provide insights into why the community is divided and what is taking so long.

Nguyen smartly describes a “sense of ownership” that some (read “white”) community members have toward the name of the school. Reading Facebook comments from citizens who are defending the current school name as “theirs” suggests to Nguyen that the school doesn’t belong to him and other minorities.

The brutality Kansans show when they ignore this harm done to high school and younger students has many causes, particularly the nationalization of American politics. We ignore local political campaigns while tuning into national media that obsesses about senators from Arizona or Alabama.

Playing into this, conservative news media have already lathered up its audience with a lie, laced with racial division, that public school students are being taught a post-graduate legal concept taught at a limited number of law schools. Despite official assurances that Kansas schools are free of Critical Race Theory, conservatives believe millions of students are being taught a form of white guilt. To call it a conspiracy is too weak for this moment and this tactic. It’s a ruthless, convenient political lie.

By equating a racist school name with a fringe law school concept, an issue driven by momentary national political panic is affixed to a local issue that would otherwise unite us.

On KMUW’s “The Range” this week, education reporter Suzanne Perez described the political dishonesty and how it is influencing Wichita school board elections.

“State and district officials have said over and over again that CRT isn’t taught in schools,” Perez said. “But these candidates are pointing to other lessons on equity or inclusion or social justice and they are conflating the two. They are saying they are the same thing.”

The convenience of the lie — saying that changing a school name or teaching inclusion is Critical Race Theory — comes in moments like this. Seaman High School cannot be renamed because Critical Race Theory occludes any rational discussion. The national panic brought on by the lie prevents an honest discussion.

Should state and national politics influence a clear-cut decision to rename a school? Of course not. Local voices should be heard.

That’s why we should celebrate the approach of the “Lawrence Talks” podcast this week. Their audio feed published six interviews with local candidates for school board. Here’s hoping those episodes promote its audience’s interest in authentic local issues, rather than opportunistic political misinformation.

Elsewhere, news media outlets scoff at Seaman School District’s racially tone-deaf pace. In April, I was embarrassed for Kansas listening to an episode of Vox’s “Today, Explained” (titled “KKK High” no less), as it described how the namesake was sent to committee and further study rather than being promptly changed. To be clear, corporations are seldom more courageous. As discussed on Slate’s “Hang Up and Listen” this week, the Atlanta Braves play on in the World Series this weekend, the team still studying whether to eliminate its racist mascot and tomahawk chop.

Nevertheless, the students from Seaman High School want change now. Can the school district make an immediate name change to avoid forever being known as KKK High?

What could prevent us from agreeing on that?

What did we miss? Email [email protected] to let us know of a Kansas-based audio program that would be interesting to Audio Astra readers.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.

MORE FROM AUTHOR