DETROIT, – High school students, gorilla emojis and the N-word launched a local outcry in Saline, Michigan, last week.
Then a parent stood up at a community meeting to recount times his now-adult son was called “taco” and “enchilada” at school, leaving him in tears.
“Then why didn’t you stay in Mexico?” responded another man.
Now, the small but burgeoning city south of Ann Arbor is making national headlines next to the word “racist.”
For residents and business owners like Ron Schofield, 61, the two recent incidents – one reported by Saline Area Schools and one on full display during a school meeting – are both a disturbing revelation and a symptom of underlying racism nationwide.
Speaking a few hours before nearly 250 anti-racism marchers took to the street Wednesday, Schofield, co-owner of the Salt Springs Brewery on the city’s main drag, said Saline has been a tight-knit community with the type of people that take care of each other.
“To say, ‘shocking,’ I don’t know if that’s appropriate,” he said of the incidents. “It’s disturbing that people are this comfortable being this open about their feelings that are just racist. That’s the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around.”
N-word, gorilla emojis at majority white school district
Saline Area Schools became aware of a racist incident involving high school students a little over a week and a half ago, said Pittsfield Township Director of Public Safety Matthew Harshberger.
Though the district covers the 4-square-mile city of Saline, it has students from surrounding townships and the high school rests in Pittsfield Township.
School officials contacted police, who responded to the school on Jan. 27, spoke to students and uncovered a thread of conversation on the social media app Snapchat.
Among other things, the N-word was used, he confirmed. So were gorilla emojis.
“None of it was criminal in nature,” he said. “It was definitely offensive and racial, as the schools have identified, but not criminal, so it did not fit the elements of ethnic intimidation or hate crime.”
Superintendent Scot Graden, in a letter Jan. 27, acknowledged an incident of “offensive and inappropriate racist comments” and said the damage to the community needed to be repaired. He noted the restorative justice program at the school, used in conjunction with discipline with both the harmed and those doing the harm.
Emotion tumbled out the following day at a school board meeting and on Monday during a school community meeting on diversity and inclusion, MLive and The Ann Arbor News reported.
As Adrian Iraola, owner of the Chela’s Restaurant and Taquerias in Ann Arbor and Dexter, discussed the abuse his son faced in the 88% white school district, a man identified as Tom Burtell questioned why Iraola came to the U.S., MLive reported.
After audible gasps and shouts for Burtell to leave, Iraola said, “Because this is the greatest country in the world,” MLive reported.
'I am Saline'
Saline had a population a little over 9,000 in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But on the city website, it boasts roughly 250,000 working-age people within a 20-minute commute.
With Saline's roots as a rural farm community, Schofield said, farm equipment makes its way past his brewery around harvest time each year.
But there’s the Toyota Technical Center nearby and the automotive parts plant, Faurecia, down the road.
Walking the few miles to his job at Faurecia on Wednesday, Michael Hearn, 47, said he’s only heard rumor of one racist incident during his three months living in Saline. It involved police and wasn’t one that made national headlines.
Saline Police Sgt. Jay Basso said Wednesday he wasn’t immediately aware of an incident matching the description provided.
Originally from Detroit, Hearn moved to Saline to cut down on his commute.
An African American man, he said he was wary he might run into racism in the small town. However, he’s mainly been overwhelmed with kindness.
“Everybody is so sweet, so nice, that’s it’s like a horror movie on the down-low,” he said with a chuckle, noting how nice characters first seemed in the movie, “Get Out.”
“It’s like you never know when somebody is going to jump out and change on you,” he said. “I mean, I’m hoping that never happens, but I’ve never been anywhere where everybody is just so nice.”
Not everyone has felt that kindness, however.
A week before the comment “Then why didn’t you stay in Mexico?” one woman at a school board meeting revealed her children’s noses and African clothing were mocked, MLive reported. Others pointed to lack of inclusion and policy issues when it came to gender identity and sexual orientation.
Hundreds gathered to march against the racism boiling over in the community Wednesday.
With posters denouncing discrimination, such as “No room for racism,” they walked up and down Michigan Avenue in the cold before stealing inside to give a chance for community members to speak.
Residents of multiple ages and races explained the support, hatred, fear and worries they felt in the community.
One sign-bearer, Valerie Casarez Helmer of Saline, had a message for racists.
“For those who have loved me and embraced me, I thank them, and then for those who do not embrace me and my culture, I’d just like them to know they need to get used to it.”
“I am Saline, get used to it,” her sign said.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan diversity meeting: 'Stay in Mexico' leaves community reeling