Our View: In pursuit of fairness

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Members of the Patrick Henry community and those opposed to the swing space plan gathered on April 1 to hold a rally before a community meeting with Alexandria City Public Schools staff. (Photo credit: Joel Finkelstein)
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Issues of race and fairness are among the most difficult to reconcile, not just in Alexandria but in our country as a whole. Successful, compassionate and civil discussion of race-related issues remains remarkably elusive.

How do we respond with sensitivity to those of different races, not just with an understanding of current circumstances, but also with sympathy for past injustices, while also not falling prey to the divisive blame-game?

Two pieces in this week’s Times provide opportunity to examine the concepts of race and fairness yet again. On page one, “T.C. lights heads to trial,” and on the facing opinion page, the letter “Patrick Henry treatment is unfair,” ask us to consider these topics anew.

The issue of what’s fair regarding the proposed addition of lights to the T.C. Williams High School football stadium is back in the news because a circuit court judge ruled late last month that at least one of the four lawsuits filed against the city will go to trial.

At issue in this particular case is whether a verbal pledge was made in the 1960s to a group of black residents of Alexandria – who had their land taken by eminent domain – to never light the stadium. And whether that pledge, if made, is still binding.

The second is a letter from Tom Suydam that raises the question of whether the city, readers and this newspaper were sufficiently sensitive to the issues of race and class surrounding the decision to use the old Patrick Henry school as swing space during the rebuild of Douglas MacArthur Elementary School.

Both issues are difficult and the concerns valid.

All three schools in question are majority minority, according to the Alexandria City Public Schools website. Non-white students make up 88 percent of Patrick Henry’s student body, 53 percent of Douglas MacArthur and 76 percent of T.C. Williams.

In the Patrick Henry/MacArthur situation, there’s no denying that MacArthur sits in a more affluent part of Alexandria than does Patrick Henry. It’s a valid question as to whether the chorus of complaints would be significantly louder if the situation were reversed and MacArthur students were the ones who had to wait an extra four years for their open space and playing fields. The likely answer is “yes.” Regarding T.C. lights, there are so many competing racial angles to this issue that that facet can’t be the prism through which it’s viewed:

-There’s the fact that this promise, if it was made, happened in an era when Alexandria’s schools were still largely segregated;

-The reality that these neighboring black residents were repeatedly mistreated by the city;

-The fact that students of all races at the majority-minority high school, with more current black students than white, would benefit from having a lighted football field on campus; and

-The little discussed angle that for some people, race was a reason to oppose night football games in the first place.

In the end we think fairness, taking all other angles into consideration, should be the deciding factor when possible. We still agree with the school board’s decision to use the old Patrick Henry as swing space and believe that decision was made without regard to race. City officials were left with less-than-ideal options, but of the options they had, they chose the best – and most cost-effective – path forward.

Regarding T.C. Williams, we do believe a verbal pledge was made to nearby residents almost 60 years ago and that the pledge should be honored. We also think that Alexandria needs a lighted football stadium, and that the best path forward is to build a lighted stadium elsewhere in the city, to serve not just T.C. but a second, comprehensive high school.

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