Racist signs in Delaware? When moral outrage gets in the way of solving problems – a cautionary tale

Think (and check facts) before you rage out

I was surfing Daily Kos a couple of days ago and came across a cross-post of a piece from Delaware Liberal titled “Outrage in Milford”. The piece was inspired by this sign:

The top sign says one thing in English but the bottom sign, in Spanish, says something entirely different:

You must have a permit to play on this field. Violators are subject to police action.

There were several of these signs at playgrounds across the city.

Hideous racism, right?

Actually not. But that didn’t stop numerous folks across the country from expressing their outrage about what the original poster described as “an obvious intimidation tactic and a not so subtle ‘Whites Only’ sign”.

I, myself, was completely outraged by this. I uploaded the images, started a post and, as I was reviewing the Delaware Liberal post, saw that it had been updated and one of the new images was this photo:

See that top sign? It’s the exact same one as the outrageously “racist” one at the playground. Except that this one is at a sports field that requires a permit for use. My instantaneous thought was, “Oh, shit. This is just a case of some dumbass who doesn’t read Spanish grabbing the wrong sign.”

As it turns out, that’s probably exactly what happened. A piece in The News Journal over the weekend revealed that the signs have actually been up for about a year and this is the first time anyone has expressed outrage. When the current superintendent found out about it, she was mortified:

Today, Milford School District Superintendent Dr. Phyllis Kohel learned of the signs. She told her husband to grab his tools so they could immediately remove them. They were in the process of doing so this afternoon.

“I didn’t want to wait,” Kohel said.

Kohel said there are signs at the school district’s middle school and high school that tell visitors in English and Spanish that they need permission to use the facilities or could be subject to police action.

She said she doesn’t know why that message was only put in Spanish at the elementary schools. Kohel said the signs have been up for about a year. Kohel started as superintendent this school year, after the signs were installed.

“I certainly assume there was not an intent to discriminate,” Kohel said. “We have a great working relationship with all of the communities at the school, and there is absolutely an understanding that no ethnic group will be discriminated upon.”

I suppose that it’s possible that this was an act of overt racism by someone a year ago. The far more believable explanation is that someone in charge of installing the signs either couldn’t read Spanish or didn’t read it well and grabbed the wrong sign. The worst they could be accused of is not having someone who could actually speak Spanish pick the signs. I was embarrassed that I had almost published my indignant post without having all the facts.

The take home message is that this situation could have been easily resolved by a phone call to the superintendent. The widespread accusations of intentional racism were not based on any proof and not substantiated at all. Rather than picking up the phone to figure out was going on, it got “reported” as an “Outage in Delaware”. It had legs, too, and is currently making the rounds on Facebook and other places (like Arizona.)

I’m the first to admit leaping before I have looked as a blogger. I nearly did it in this case, in fact. Over the years, I have pulled posts and issued mea culpas more than once after realizing that I had made a major error. I only bring this up so that others can learn from it. Whether you are a blogger or just spreading information via social media, it’s worth taking an extra moment to check the source and to be sure that the story is all that it appears to be. Because we have a LOT of fights that deserve our attention and our action and, yes, our outrage.

Let’s reserve our energy for the fights that deserve it.

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  • KPA

    If you don’t know spanish, and you are a person ‘in charge of installing signs,’ don’t you think it is your responsibility to find someone who does? not to mention, any spanish 1 student can identify a few ‘cognates’ in there, particularly, ‘susceptibles a accion policial.’ There is no similar statement in the English sign. Not sure what has been disproved by finding the sign next to the proper English version of the sign at a different park, and the city reacting after a public outcry.

    • Phil Perspective

      You are correct. It reminds me of the time, a while back, when GM tried to sell the Nova in Mexico, or at least Spanish speaking countries. They never figured to ask Spanish speakers if that was an okay name. They only learned after the cars didn’t sell at all.

      • Excalibre

        Yeah, it’s true. The car sold poorly because “nova” is Spanish for “exploding star”.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ron.rodenmeyer Ron Rodenmeyer

        Ahh, the internet. Where age old urban myths get a new lease on life. While the “Nova” story has been repeated endlessly for decades, it is –alas– untrue. http://www.snopes.com/business/misxlate/nova.asp

    • http://eclectablog.com Eclectablog

      Stupid? Yes, absolutely. Intentionally racist? Nope.

  • barkway

    I’m originally from DE and was not aware that the Spanish-speaking population had grown sufficiently large enough since I left that multi-language signs were necessary. Here in FL, everything is in multiple languages because of the size of various ethnic populations but aside from DE being a tiny state, it always seemed to me to be (still) very homogeneous.

  • outside

    People read signs, a half year of high school spanish would allow you to see that the two signs do not say the same thing, any semi-educated person who tried to read it would see that it didn’t say the same thing, the signs stood there for a year before anyone noticed that there was a discrepancy?? I find that very difficult to believe. I also feel that every single person who read the sign and didn’t voice a concern was in some ways complicit. We are all guilty.

  • http://www.facebook.com/derek.beauchemin.1 Derek Beauchemin

    Jumping to conclusions is a young persons game; us old farts are too worried about breaking a hip.

  • http://www.facebook.com/pablo.ramirez1 Pablo Ramirez

    Isee this as an example of institutional racism, so it makes me angry
    that people are so ready to dismiss this incident as a simple “mix-up.” These signs were placed in at least four other community playgrounds. There was no one with a couple semesters of high school Spanish who could see the discrepancy? The Spanish is horrible but that doesn’t mean the sign doesn’t make sense. “Campo” does not only mean “field”; it can be taken to mean “campo de juego” (“playground”).

    The signs will be changed, and there will be a simple apology. (“Sorry we threatened you with police action; made you fruitlessly try to obtain an imaginary permit; and then made you and your children feel like you shouldn’t be using these facilities.
    Oopsie!”) However, I suspect nothing else will change.

    • http://www.facebook.com/pablo.ramirez1 Pablo Ramirez

      The town, by the way, is 16% Latina/o.

  • Guest

    I see this as an example of institutional racism, so it makes me angry
    that people are so ready to dismiss this incident as a simple “mix-up.”
    These signs were placed in at least four other community playgrounds in a town that is 16% Latina/o. There was no one with a couple semesters of high school Spanish who
    could see the discrepancy? The Spanish is horrible but that doesn’t mean the sign doesn’t make sense. “Campo” does not only mean “field”; it can be taken to mean “campo de juego” (“playground”).

    The signs will be changed, and there will be a simple apology. (“Sorry we threatened you with police action; made you fruitlessly try to obtain an imaginary permit; and then made you and your children feel like you shouldn’t be using these facilities.
    Oopsie!”) However, I suspect nothing else will change.

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