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Opposing Michelle Obama

Michelle Obama (left) welcoming Olympians and Paralympians to White House
Michelle Obama (left) welcoming Olympians and Paralympians to White House
Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Topeka, Kansas, public school district thought it would be good to celebrate the anniversary of the famous United States Supreme Court case that it lost, Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), which put an end to the "separate but equal" doctrine and launched a major advance in racial integration. The idea was to have First Lady Michelle Obama address the graduates of the three high schools in one large joint graduation ceremony, to be held in an eight thousand seat auditorium. It seems a clever idea--but that the graduating students and their parents have apparently objected strenuously. It is perhaps inevitable that someone is going to claim that the objections are based on racial prejudice; it is thus important that we understand the claimed bases for them. There are two.

The first looks a bit suspicious. The claim is that this plan will limit the number of people who can attend the graduation, that there will of course be ticketed seating which will prevent some from coming who would otherwise wish to do so. However, the total number of graduates in last year's combined graduating classes of the three schools (Topeka, Highland Park, and Topeka West High Schools) was seven hundred forty-four students (three hundred thirty-five, one hundred seventy, and two hundred thirty-nine, respectively). If we allow two hundred fifty seats for faculty, school staff, Obama staff, and press, that still leaves over seven thousand seats--nine tickets per student. Most indoor high school graduations in my experience have two to four tickets per student.

But then, that is probably why most high school graduation ceremonies are held outside, weather permitting. Security for the First Lady is certainly easier if it is indoors. It might be that students would have had more than eight or nine family members in attendance at the expected outdoor ceremony, even if they would only have been issued two or three tickets for the weather-contingency indoor ceremony. So this might be a legitimate complaint.

The other objection is that graduation is supposed to be about the students, who have worked twelve years to reach this goal and deserve their moment of glory. It should not be about politics, whether about a famous civil rights case decided before their parents and maybe some of their grandparents were born or about the first black First Lady of the United States and her husband. Is this a valid objection?

There may be more merit here. Certainly it is usually the case that someone is asked to speak at graduation, and that there is a certain prestige to having a famous person do so. On the other hand, valedictorians and salutatorians are generally recognized at these events and given the opportunity to speak. Will they have three valdedictorians and three salutatorians, or will the three high schools compete, four of these candidates eliminated from the honor because of the joint graduation? What of other honors--which band will play, which chorus sing, how many awards will be included? Even apart from the spotlight on the First Lady, students who would have been noticed at their school graduation will be lost in the crowd at this larger ceremony--and longer, as well, as the three schools together sport more than twice as many graduates as the largest, more than four times as the smallest. In many ways, this larger ceremony reduces the honor to the majority of those graduating, who are now graduating less in front of their peers and more in front of strangers.

I do not know that there is no racial motivation here; I do not know that there is no political motivation, no objection to the Obama administration's policies and practices. I do know that there is a valid objection to the plan, raised by some of those for whom the ceremony is intended to recognize their achievements. That cannot be dismissed lightly.

Perhaps some compromise should be considered. I know that before college Commencement I attended Baccalaureate. Perhaps the Board of Education should hold a separate ceremony in their eight thousand seat auditorium, giving tickets to the graduating class and their families, to mark the anniversary of the landmark decision, and then hold the three regular graduations in their own schools as usual. We can honor our history without taking the honor away from our successful students who are ignorant beneficiaries of that history, students whose parents, possibly whose grandparents, never knew segregated schools, for whom the celebration is almost as insignificant as a Civil War Memorial Service.

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