By Vernon A. Williams
This is not rocket science.
Incivility, hostility and racial intolerance is rising sharply among high school students at the same rate of the growing tension throughout the United States.
Last weekend, Eva Schloss – an Auschwitz survivor and stepsister of Anne Frank – came to Newport Harbor High School in California to address anti-Semitism after students at their school last week posted photos of themselves with arms raised in the Nazi salute around a swastika they formed from plastic cups. The photo went viral.
Rather than a conciliatory atmosphere on her arrival, Schloss was confronted with flyers with swastikas posted on the wall. The vitriol in U.S. schools is palpable.
From the beginning of time, children imitate the mannerisms, behaviors and language of adults. From the little boy who wants to lift weights to look more like the muscular man of the house to the little girl stumbling around in high heels and smearing lipstick when mom isn’t looking – grown folk are role models.
Few images are more searing than that of a toddler dressed in a tiny, shiny robe and pointed hood, at the scene of a hate demonstration or burning cross.
We have a growing problem in our schools that surpasses immigration as a national emergency, and too many in government, the media, and general public are pretending like public education is proceeding with business as usual. Not only are the circumstances shameful but they are equally dangerous.
It is an uncomfortable conversation that America needs to encourage with a sense of urgency. Finger-pointing is not a necessity, but we must be honest in any dialogue.
Political grudges, ideology, dogma and racial animosity at the highest levels have divided students at U.S. schools. The incumbent president of the U.S. has exacerbated the problem with rhetoric designed to incite. But there is no escaping the complicity of the media that overexposes his violent language while downplaying feelings of those impacted.
Researchers at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) surveyed 505 high school principals for the study. More than 60 percent report students cited for making derogatory remarks about immigration. That’s in school – within ear range. The truth is likely much higher. They report 80 percent of students openly disparage other races and ethnic groups.
The sad survey is called “School and Society in the Age of Trump.” The report, however, notes that the incumbent does not bear all of the blame. The study points to an almost 20 percent leap in FBI confirmed hate crimes in the U.S. in 2017 (coincidentally, the first full year of the Trump Administration).
In total transparency, there is also rising opposition to clearly right-wing or conservative students who express their views. But to use a simple analogy, while some men are also victims of sexual harassment, the problem overwhelmingly plagues women at a higher level. People of color are most often the victims of the vitriol so present in American schools.
In one Wisconsin school, a principal reported that fighting broke out when a small group of students wore the red “MAGA” hats to school. In many schools, students of Hispanic heritage have endured the derisive deportment and anti-immigration chant, “Build that wall” as they traverse high school hallways from class to class.
A number of Black high school students have confronted racial slurs and blackface – even at some formal school organized events like basketball games where “fans” have been allowed to deride players with racial slurs from the stands. Several photographs have appeared on social media depicting white students wearing gorilla costumes to insult African American players.
Media is replete with awful stories of white teachers conducting racist activities such as mock slave auctions with white students bargaining for Black classmates. Students taken on one field trip were subjected to picking cotton – ostensibly to give them a feeling of what their ancestors endured. Wouldn’t role reversal be more educational?
It is a particularly difficult proposition when the white teacher is filled with hate or the white administration is reluctant to react strongly to disgusting conduct on the part of educators. Increasingly, the horrible behavior, followed by the perfunctory apology and wrist slap, is endemic to the lack of seriousness placed on this disturbing reality.
This is a crisis that cries for the immediate and sustained attention of media, educators, parents, and government at every level. Anything less is dereliction of responsibility with the result certain to be manifested in racial and religious bigotry threatening the safety of people across the country. It is time to get serious.