By Mica Pollock
Hate speech and harassment have spiked nationwide since the 2016 election. They’ve spiked in our own backyards, too — requiring each community to counteract hate proactively.
We can counter hate at our dinner tables; we can do it via our religious organizations. I suggest we counter hate particularly where we most come together daily: in our schools.
I started writing about a spike in hateful talk and harassment on campuses both before and right after the election. The question then was whether that spike would fade. No such luck: a recent, nationally representative UCLA survey found that 27 percent of 1535 teachers surveyed in May 2017 “reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions. This included sexist as well as racist and anti-Muslim comments.” Recent hate and harassment examples from schools nationwide included school swastikas and n-words scrawled on bathroom walls, taunts to peers about deportation, and other visible messages like “Kill the [N-word]” and “F–k Jews.” Teachers in eight states used the word “emboldened” to describe students’ increasingly hateful remarks in class — including never-before-encountered explicit statements of white supremacy. Teachers nationwide told researchers they wanted help handling the hate surge – and 91.6 percent of teachers surveyed agreed that “national, state, and local leaders should encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference.”
Children and youth don’t live in a vacuum: they hear and repeat the words adults say. (Just last month, Pennsylvania educators I met recounted n-word taunts by both teens and parents at a fall sports game; fliers just sent during a November New Jersey school board race called for two Asian American candidates to be “deported.”) And after many months of public speech denigrating people of all kinds, our spike in hate is truly national — including in my state and town.
This summer, California’s attorney general Xavier Becerra released a report showing that statewide, the number of hate crime offenses increased 12.6 percent last year — “the second consecutive double-digit increase after years of decline,” as NBC news put it. Hate crimes — based on race/ethnicity/national origin, sexual orientation, religion, and more — occurred on streets, in neighborhoods, around places of worship, and, as nationally, in schools. My town, San Diego, was the source of these incidents too. Of 1190 hate crime offenses statewide in 2016, 105 were in San Diego County. And as San Diego Deputy District Attorney Oscar Garcia put it to me, most experts agree that hate crimes are underreported to police. “Over the past two years, I’ve also definitely seen a spike in informally reported hate incidents and calls from community leaders and civil rights groups in San Diego,” he added. “People seem to think you can say whatever you want now, even if it denigrates and humiliates people.”
Some focus debate on whether Trump himself has caused the hate spike. As an LA County sheriff put it this summer, “The vast majority of what we’re seeing is vandalism, like a swastika here or there, or people making a blanket statement about hating a certain group of people, but we can’t directly link that to the election.” Others explicitly blame Trump’s leader-level modeling of derogatory talk — even as the repeated term “emboldening” demonstrates that derogatory ideas existed long before him. (David Duke, of course, famously cited Trump’s election as key to emboldening white supremacists marching proudly on Charlottesville with torches.) But while we can debate the “cause” of specific swastikas or slurs forever, the bigger point is the effect of a hate spike on our communities — and our children. As George W. Bush put it recently, “Bullying and prejudice in our public life sets a national tone, provides permission for cruelty and bigotry and compromises the moral education of children.”
Kids are indeed hearing every hateful word — and for many months, they’ve been repeating them. A social media survey of 50,000 teens by the Human Rights Campaign found in January 2017 that “high school students described bus rides bristling with homophobic and racist epithets and attacks,” with 70 percent of respondents reporting “witnessing bullying, hate messages or harassment during or since the 2016 election.” The Southern Poverty Law Center documented a nationwide wave of students repeating slurs and harassing peers on campuses during and after the election; while some taunts flew in all political directions, they called the spike “the Trump effect” because so many students were quoting Trump directly while taunting. Journalists captured various examples in my own region this past school year. In Southern California, for example, a father had to explain to his fifth-grade daughter what a swastika is after someone drew it on a chalkboard in her classroom next to the words “Go Trump.” An Asian American middle schooler described how a group of girls would “target” her by passing her locker and making statements about Trump keeping out immigrants: “Some days they’d scream my name and say phrases they heard Trump say.”