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How will Howard County react to racism?

Tuesday's protest at Mount Hebron High School in Howard County was perhaps the most heartening development to date in what has been a most dispiriting racial episode. More than 150 students walked out of class on their own accord to protest a now-infamous 30-second vulgarity of a video that popped up on social media last week. The video features a seemingly intoxicated white student disparaging the Black Lives Matter movement and African Americans generally, dismissing them as an "inferior race."

"Does anybody really care?" the Mount Hebron senior adds dismissively. Apparently, some people do.

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Such a public display of such extreme racism deserves to be roundly condemned by all associated with it, and school officials have certainly done that, even though the rant didn't appear to take place on school property. In a letter to parents, Superintendent Renee Foose described the video as hateful and inappropriate and warned that it should not be shared with fellow students. Mount Hebron Principal Andrew Cockley approved this week's student protest although he and other officials have not yet decided what, if any, action shouldn't be taken against the student involved.

What makes the video particularly shocking is Howard County's reputation for enlightenment in matters of K-12 education and race relations, not only for producing one of Maryland's finest public school systems but because Ellicott City, where Mount Hebron is located, is a stone's throw from Columbia, the planned community founded by James Rouse with a vision of racial, religious and economic equality. Because of that legacy, Howard Countians regard themselves as possessing more acceptance of diversity than might be found elsewhere.

And there lies the dilemma. The question facing the Mount Hebron community and Howard County more broadly is not just the obnoxious behavior of one apparently drunken teen — which could, after all, be unique to him — but the possibility that these sentiments are more widely shared. Some may be reluctant to speak out about the issue for fear that attention is exactly what the race-baiters would like — anger and frustration, more people drawn to watching the video and more notoriety for the perpetrator. Surely, few Mount Hebron students, current, soon-to-be or past, want the school to be known for a half-minute of hate.

Nevertheless, ignoring the video and denying the existence of racism in Howard County would be worse. That is how evil prevails, racial divisions broaden and points of view harden in place. It is also worth noting the wealth of first-person testimony from students and parents at Mount Hebron (much of it offered on social media and elsewhere over the last week) to suggest that an undercurrent of racial hostility exists and that some minority students have been mistreated there.

We don't pretend to have all the answers for healing racial strife. But we suspect merely condemning racism or even punishing such egregious examples of it is not enough. That's what makes Tuesday's protest heartening — these were students not only condemning the video but seeking a dialogue, offering solutions such as requiring ethnic and cultural diversity classes, taking steps to promote diversity in student government and condemning hate speech.

Still, while potentially helpful, these are steps that officials can do on behalf of the students. The question is, what can the students accomplish on behalf of each other? It's one thing for a teacher to announce that today's lecture is on diversity, it's quite another for peers to seek out such a dialogue on their own, to reach out to classmates in the lunchroom or the hallways and bridge the gap.

While it's true that racism is something that's taught — as opposed to something one is born with — we seriously doubt that destructive, hateful and misguided racial attitudes at Mount Hebron displayed in the video germinated from a lesson taught in any classroom. That kind of hatred can only grow from a seed planted long before the teen years and most likely in the home. That's why the conversation about race needs to take place there, too.

One final observation. Such soul-searching over racism is an exercise that should not be unique to Howard County. Many other public institutions, not to mention candidates for president, have displayed enough examples of overt racism in recent weeks to justify a national dialogue. Describing African-Americans as an "inferior race" — is that an outrageous aberration or a widely-held view that continues to permeate and poison our society? Let's talk about it.

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