Michael Eric Dyson says grandson was threatened, called N-word at school

“Welcome again to Trump’s white racist America,” the scholar wrote of the incident on Twitter.
Image: Michael Eric Dyson
Michael Eric Dyson speaks at the 2018 Essence Festival at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center on July 7, 2018, in New Orleans.Amy Harris / Invision/AP file

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By Gwen Aviles

Michael Eric Dyson, the eminent African American scholar, author and Georgetown professor, said his 6-year-old grandson was called the N-word and physically threatened by a white classmate at his elementary school in Washington this week.

Tuesday was "Pizza Day" at Horace Mann Elementary School, Dyson said, and the students were understandably excited. His grandson Maxem and another first grader were running to get to the front of the line in the cafeteria when another student confronted them.

"The student called my grandson the B word, the MF word and the N-word, then told him that he was going to take his father's gun and shoot him," Dyson told NBC News.

He added that the student has not faced disciplinary repercussions.

"Maxem's an assertive, confident young man, but he's feeling awful and unsafe in his own school," Dyson said. "He told me, 'Papa, I feel very sad and I'm very scared.'"

Dyson said he and Maxem's parents, met with the principal, the school’s superintendent, the police and the parents of the other student involved on Wednesday morning to address the incident and ensure the safety of Maxem and other students of color at predominately white institutions like Horace Mann.

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The meeting was "fruitful," Dyson said, adding that the parents and school administrators were not defensive and that the group had a constructive discussion about staff training and diversity and inclusivity awareness that can be incorporated into its curriculum. He is holding the school administration to a hard one-month deadline to implement these recommendations.

The District of Columbia Public Schools system asserted that it is "committed" to maintaining the safety of its students and staff.

"We will provide Mann the support it needs to adequately address this issue and continue to partner with our school communities to ensure meaningful learning and positive interactions occur within all of our school buildings,” the system said in a statement.

Horace Mann principal Liz Whisnant sent a letter to families denying that any racist language was used in the incident, according to the Washington Post. The Post reports that Whiznant did acknowledge the use of "harmful" language and that a "threat of physical harm" occurred. She said a third student was also involved.

Dyson said he shared his grandson's story on Twitter so history would not repeat itself. Last year, he said his other grandson, Mosi, 10, left the same elementary school after another student called him the N-word. Mosi is now being homeschooled, and Dyson said he told him he "almost had a heart attack" upon hearing that his brother had been threatened.

"It's important to address the systemic racism when children are young because this is when it begins," Dyson said. "This is when the roots sink into the ground and devastation begins. We can't take it lightly and brush it off as if kids grow out of it."

The alleged racist incident involving Dyson's grandson is one of several making headlines this week.

Roughly five miles from Horace Mann, in neighboring Bethesda, Maryland, school officials are investigating two white high school students who allegedly appeared in blackface in a photo posted online.

In Illinois, an online video of three white high school students in blackface at a predominantly black school led to a walkout Tuesday. And a South Carolina school district is recommending expulsion for a white high school student who allegedly posted a Facebook photo of herself holding a sign containing a racist slur.

Dyson, who has written extensively on how racism impacts American society, said he believes that white supremacy in American culture is being affirmed by President Donald Trump and trickles down — even to those as young as first graders who then internalize it.

Though he said the incident involving his grandson is being adequately handled, Dyson acknowledges that not everyone has access to a public network that can put pressure on institutions to address systemic violence and racism. He is encouraging others to share their stories with him so he can highlight their experiences as a result.

“What about those who are voiceless and invisible in this situation?" he said. "I want to hear the stories and use my platform to advocate for them, because there's power in the accumulated details."

Dyson said he hopes his grandson's story can serve as an impetus for structural change. Since the incident was made public, parents from Horace Mann and other schools have contacted him, sharing their children's similar experiences.

"For those who say, 'Why don't black people get over racism? Slavery is over,' this is why," Dyson said. "When your kids are just trying to go to school and they're enduring the same traumas and tragedies that should have been eradicated years ago. ... This is why."

"People claim we live in a 'post-racial' society," Dyson said, "but nothing dispels that myth more than incidents like this."