After the European-American Club was founded last month at Anaheim High School, white racists wrote letters to Principal Craig Haugen congratulating him for allowing a club that will preserve "white heritage" at the predominantly Latino school.
A local television newscast erroneously said the club was for "whites only." Reporters from East Coast newspapers, national television networks and news magazines have called seeking interviews, some dropping out when they learned the club is racially mixed.
Organizers of the club--the first of its kind in Orange County and perhaps the nation--say they have been on the receiving end of what is sometimes unwelcome and misplaced attention.
According to the club's president, Shannon Mounger, a 17-year-old senior, the group was formed to help students prepare for college and life after high school.
Because nearly 80% of Anaheim High's students are of an ethnic minority group, college representatives often come to campus to recruit minorities. Minority students tend to receive more help than white students in completing applications for college entrance and financial aid, said Mounger, who is half-Lebanese.
So the main purpose of the European-American Club will be to provide that kind of support for white students, although any student is welcome to join, she said. And so far, at least 50 students have expressed interest in joining.
Mounger said there are no plans for cultural events such as examining European history or staging a Eurocentric fair, but that one of the main goals of the club--which has yet to hold a formal meeting--is to provide representation for European-Americans, the only major ethnic group on campus that does not have its own club. Latinos, blacks and Asians all have their own organizations.
"I had no opposition from anybody on campus to starting the club," said Mounger, who is a star softball player and a member of the school's student government. "In fact, a lot of the teachers and students have come up to me and congratulated me."
Joanne Stanton, president of the Anaheim Union High School Board of Trustees, said the board usually approves new clubs as a matter of routine after an examination by the district's superintendent and its attorney, but it did take a closer look at the European-American Club before giving it unanimous consent.
"At first, I wondered why we needed this kind of club," she said. "But we were told that the club had been through both the school and district process and it was determined that this was a positive situation. We were assured the club will be watched very closely to make sure it remains a positive kind of club."
Haugen said if he suspected racist motives for starting the club he would not have approved it and he will disband it if he ever detects a racist undercurrent among the club's membership.
The club is now in the process of selecting its officers. Among the candidates for vice president is Letitia Challenger, a 17-year-old senior who is African-American. She said she decided to join the club to make sure it has racial balance.
"I want the members to get my perspective as a person of color, what it is like for me out in the world and how I have to adjust," she said. "I want them to have an insight into how I feel, as a person of color, about things."
Challenger said no member of the club has questioned her membership or her running for office. She said the only opposition she has received has been from her black friends.
"They ask me why I'm running," she said. "But I am not going to self-discriminate against myself. I am going to do what I want to do."
The school's population last year was 72% Latino, 18% white, 5% Asian, 2% black and 3% other ethnic groups, according to a district report. Figures for this school year are not yet available, but Haugen said there has been little change in the school's racial makeup.
Leslie Clewett, a 30-year-old physical education and oceanography teacher who is the club's adviser, said she would not be involved with the group if she thought it was racist.
"I think a lot of people think we're the Ku Klux Klan or skinheads and that if they came to our meetings they would find a bunch of people with weird haircuts," said Clewett, who has been at the school three years. "But if they would come talk to us, they would find the exact opposite."
She points out that of the students running for vice president, secretary and treasurer, four are Latino and one, Challenger, is black. And when the club organizers circulated a petition asking for student body approval for the club, 60% of the signers were Latinos, she said.
Among leaders in Orange County's minority communities, reaction to the club was mixed.
Amin David, an Anaheim community activist and the chairman of Los Amigos of Orange County, a Latino community group, said he knows Haugen and trusts his judgment. If the club is open to all students and is not racist, it should be allowed to operate, he said.
"I have told people not to have a knee-jerk reaction to this," he said. "If the Anglo students feel they have been overlooked at that school . . . let's give them an opportunity to work things out, just as long as they don't exclude anybody else."
The Rev. John McReynolds, pastor of Santa Ana's Second Baptist Church, a predominantly black congregation, also said there is nothing intrinsically wrong with a European-American Club.
"As long as they are not excluding other races or promoting the superiority of one race over another," he said. "I would be worried if the club were being run by skinheads or others who hate blacks, Jews and other people."
Yen Do, editor of Ng Voi Viet Daily News, a Vietnamese newspaper based in Garden Grove, said he does not think that high school ethnic clubs are a good idea whether they are for whites, Asians or others. He said such clubs may be needed by adults who immigrated to this country, but not for their children.
"They should be working to become part of the mainstream," he said. "These groups for children are very, very divisive."
Haugen said one reason he approved the club is that there is no such divisiveness or racial tension on campus, and that having the club will help prevent strife in the future.
"We are going to establish a multicultural council on which all of the racial groups will be represented so they can work things out," he said.
He said a club for European-Americans probably wouldn't be a good idea on a campus where whites are the majority or where there is racial conflict. "But here," he said, "I think it will work."