A racially charged debate over school busing in North Carolina has turned even uglier after an education official referred to proponents of a diversity program as "animals out of the cages."
The state NAACP filed a complaint against the Wake County school board Friday, arguing that Chairman Ron Margiotta and his allies seem to have "racist attitudes."
"The image of animals out of their cages is covered in the history of racism and ugliness and hatred in this country," said the Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president. "We know what it means."
School board members voted 5-4 at a contentious meeting this week to scrap a county policy of maintaining diversity by assigning students to schools based on their socio-economic backgrounds.
The diversity policy, adopted in 2000 after the county decided to do away with race-based busing, never sat well with suburban parents who argued their children had to go to schools too far from home.
Those suburban parents helped sweep a new school board majority into office in November. Supporters of the busing policy argued that doing away with it would return the county to the days of segregation.
Margiotta, who is white and part of the new majority, made the "animals" comment after opponents jeered a black congressional candidate, Bill Randall, who had just voiced support for Margiotta's plans. Margiotta asked the crowd to be respectful and then mumbled into his microphone: "Here come the animals out of the cages."
His comment went largely unnoticed in the raucous meeting but was captured on the official Wake County video of the event and distributed online.
A message seeking comment was left with Margiotta, who has said his comment was out of line but not racist. Randall defended Margiotta on Friday, saying verbal gymnastics are necessary to conclude his comment had racial overtones.
"It doesn't pass the smell test for me," Randall said.
But an NAACP attorney, Al McSurely, questioned the Margiotta's educational background and referred to the members halting the diversity policy as "clowns." Barber likened the board's handling of the issues to a gang, a dictatorship, communism -- and the Mafia. Margiotta is of Italian descent.
Wake County, which includes the state capital, isn't the only district moving away from policies designed to ensure diversity by busing students to schools farther from their homes. The change has meant decreased diversity in many cases. In Wilmington, an elementary school of several hundred students has just one who is black. In Charlotte, a primary school of similar size has just one white student.
The NAACP has already filed a lawsuit against the school district covering Goldsboro, accusing leaders there of creating "an apartheid district." Friday's complaint against the Wake County board asks an accreditation council at the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools to investigate.