In a small racially-diverse town in North Carolina, a group of black cheerleaders who kneeled for the national anthem before a high school football game have found themselves front and center in a tense discussion on race.
At South Robeson High School in Rowland, which lies in the midst of one of the poorest parts of one of North Carolina’s poorest counties, the student body is almost entirely African-American and Native American. The town is split by a railroad track into two sides — “the white folks’ section” and “the black folks’ section” — though residents said they had felt good about the progress in the town had made. But after the cheerleaders for South Robeson High decided to protest against discrimination, police brutality, and the rise of white nationalism by taking a knee, hidden racial tensions in the county swiftly made their way to the surface.
The day after the protest, 14-year-old Aajah Washington saw posts on social media in which locals made cruel insults about her and her fellow cheerleaders — one woman, she said, suggested that her parents should have broken her knees before letting her kneel.
“I watch TV every day and that’s all we see, police brutality or the KKK is coming out,” said Aajah. “It just seems like the world is changing, where everything from back then is coming back now.”
Aajah’s mother, Tiona Washington, said that her daughter hadn’t told her about the plan to protest, but that after hearing her reasons for doing so, she decided to support her daughter. Washington, who admitted that she had almost voted for Trump, said that as a child she remembered vividly when her family drove past a KKK march, and that her own mother had faced racism as part of Rowland’s newly-integrated high school in 1971. The current climate, she added, scared her as well.
“This is the most lost I’ve felt racially in my entire life,” she said. “We are seeing things that happened in eras we thought we were past.”
Cary Lewis, a retired state trooper who was one of the first to disapprovingly share news of the cheerleaders’ protest on social media, said that he thought the girls’ action was proof that America needed leaders like Donald Trump.
“People in this country … they’re already losing respect in a lot of areas. It’s the national anthem and the flag now. What’s going to be next?” he said. “Think of … China or Korea. What if they did not respect their country like these people are not respecting ours? Just think what they would do to them. I’m not saying we should do that to our people … but they teach their people respect.”
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