"Trump Perry" was all it said. In another context, and on the watch of any other president, that would seem rather innocuous.
But the banner painted by students for a West Virginia high school football game quickly became a political Rorschach test for our times. To the school librarian for the visiting team from Pittsburgh, it was an example of "sickening racism." Amid the ensuing blowback, the superintendent of schools for the home team issued a written apology and took ownership of the "insensitive, intimidating and offensive sign." Now some parents from her community want her fired.
It was billed as "Red White and Blue" night on Sept. 22, when the Brooke High School Bruins hosted the Commodores from Perry High. More separates the two schools than just state boundaries. Brooke is almost entirely white; Perry is predominantly black. The first sign of trouble came when the parents of the only black player on Brooke's team raised concerns about the banner pregame. The principal was alerted but did not demand it be taken down. Timothy Pannett later told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "I made a really bad mistake that night."
The game was played without incident and Brooke won, 34-20. But the following day, the Perry librarian, Sheila May-Stein, tweeted a photograph of the banner in front of the Brooke stands and said: "My mostly Black inner-city school played this team last night & were confronted w/this. Sickening racism." The photograph captured the Brooke students, all white, decked out in their patriotic colors above the painted banner. Above the word Trump on the sign is a yellow mane in reference to the president. The banner also contains an American flag.
The image became a flash point both for those who see racism inherent in a pro-Trump message being directed across a gridiron toward a visiting black high school and defenders who see political correctness run amok. The latter sentiment has many Brooke County parents, where Trump won nearly 70 percent of the presidential vote, calling for the superintendent's termination, while some teachers have worn red, white, and blue in solidarity with their students. Ashley Eby, the student body president at Brooke, explained to me on CNN last week the background of the banner.
"Before every football game, a group of students get together and they create a banner for the student section. And each week, for every home game, the student section has a different theme, which is determined prior to the beginning of the season. And since the game against Pittsburgh Perry was the first home game after 9/11, the theme of that week was patriotism and red, white, and blue.
"So when the banner was created, we came up with the idea 'Trump Perry' because Trump is synonymous with beat and it also is the name of the president of the United States. So whenever the banner was created, there was no intention of offending anyone, but once we saw that people reacted the way that they did, we understand that it could have been taken as offensive and we apologize for that. However, the student body wanted it to be known that that was not the intention of the students who made the sign and we are sorry for it."
I told her that I was sure that as they prepared for the game, the Brooke players knew they were facing a nearly all-black school from Pittsburgh, but wondered whether that was known to the students who painted the banner or had otherwise entered their thinking?
"It didn't really even cross our minds because the students who made the sign did not have any racist intention," she said, "so whenever we found out that it was taken that way, we were blown away and taken aback because that's not what we meant."
Some viewers of my interview with Eby were unconvinced. Here are a few of the reactions:
"They knew exactly what they were doing. The superintendent does not have to consult with students before making a public statement."
"They should have known better. Trump is a racist and divisive. Stud Council Pres seems smart enough to have know that. Shame on them."
"The thought that this very bright young lady had no idea of the connotation of the Trump Perry sign is ridiculous."
"I saw your interview on CNN with class president. My takeaway? Poor judgment at the very least."
Meanwhile, Eby and her classmates at Brooke are frustrated that the superintendent's apology did not mention the student's lack of racist intent. She added that no banners have been hung since at Brooke, and before any students attempt to show school spirit with a sign, they must first clear it with administrators.
Salena Zito, the conservative columnist and commentator who has interviewed President Trump, is Perry royalty. She is a 1977 graduate of the Pittsburgh high school, the same attended by both of her parents. In fact, her now 80-year-old mother has been a Perry volunteer since 1974. Zito told me there has been surprise among some alumni with whom she's spoken as to the viral nature of the controversy.
"Perry, in my years, 1974-77, was pretty rough. We had race riots," she said. "The [graduating] classes before mine had separate black and white proms. That is how bad it was. Our class did not do that."
"It makes me sad. It shouldn't be that way," she added. "Not just under the presidency of Trump. Under Obama and Bush, too. Our outrage has escalated and rises to the top. I always believe race relations are best when we are dealing one-on-one with each other, but, when these things escalate, we talk past each other and never solve anything."