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.”
Each town feels the effects. At multiple public events last school year, San Diego area students reported increased incidents of hateful speech targeting kids of color, immigrant students, and gay kids on campuses. One fourth grader said “A kid in my class told me that, ‘[Donald] Trump was going to beat Muslims up – including you.’” Swastikas appeared and continue to appear on the desks, walls, and floors of local campuses. One principal I know had to erase #Trump and “Heil Trump” swastika graffiti twice this summer. Last month, signage for a white supremacist group appeared locally too.
Even toddlers are not immune. “Lisa” headed to a big box store in San Diego on August 18 with her three-year-old daughter, three days after Trump excused white supremacists at Charlottesville in a news conference. Lisa was pregnant; her daughter was singing a “Shabbat song” while they shopped. On Facebook, Lisa recounted: “As we were on our way out of the store I overheard a man and a woman near me say ‘Hey that’s that Jewish song….yeah yeah it is.’ And then, ‘Oh yeah she’s got that curly Jew hair… yeah the kid too.’ At this point I was alert and I could see them out of the corner of my eye. It was what seemed to be a husband and wife with a middle-school aged son (who was laughing the entire time as they went on).” Lisa fled the store to “Filthy Jew. Yeah filthy Jew and her filthy Jew kid. … Donald Trump is going to take care of you! Yeah! We don’t have to worry now! Trump’s going to take care of you!”
As “Lisa” wrote on Facebook:
My friends, we can NOT live in a bubble. We can NOT look away. . . . Today it was me and my daughter; tomorrow it could be you.
Lisa’s right: we’re not in a bubble. Hours after her story was forwarded virally on Facebook, Lisa received threatening messages from people across the country telling her to “get over it,” stop her Jewish “whining,” and even “watch your back.”
It’s a watershed moment for hateful speech and harassment in the United States – and in every local community and school. We really do have national leaders who have excused, inflamed, and emboldened derision against much of the population; children have been listening for a long time. It’s becoming obvious that every insult or tweet from above can have dire local consequences. Each incident of hateful speech and harassment takes a collective toll: “When someone commits a crime motivated by hate, it is not just an attack on one innocent person, but an attack on the entire state and our communities,” said Becerra. “Words matter, and discriminatory rhetoric does not make us stronger but divides us and puts the safety of our communities at risk.”
This means each community needs to stand up against hate in its own backyard.
Each community needs to decide: what’s our plan for counteracting unleashed hate and local conflict? Will we stand up against hate proactively? Or will we condone it through silence or passivity?
My vote is to focus proactively on educating the next generation hearing the hate and derision. As Lisa told me, her most lingering worry after her experience was this: what about that San Diego teenager who heard his parents’ hate and laughed?
In a shared community, we share schools — and this makes schools perhaps our best lever for change. To proactively glue each community together, we can support educators to glue their school communities together in mutual respect. We can learn together about the roots of bias — and about strategies for standing up to counteract it. We can share tools for dialoguing across political positions; we can spread messages that insist on inclusion. We can support educators to teach the history of old myths that still have us valuing some “types of people” over others; we can support classrooms and schools where people learn more together about other community members’ real lives, struggles, hard work, contributions, and hopes. We can support educators to help students learn across differences, to engage accurate information about complex social issues, and even to document and share the local contributions of all.
Counteracting hate like this will take unwavering support for educators and for learning. It will mean standing up for educators when they are criticized for counteracting hate with learning. It will take dialogues and relationship-building. It will require reminding people that standing up against hate is not “partisan” at all.
It will take each community committing proactively to uniting.
Let’s defy hate by gluing together each community we call home.
Mica Pollock is Professor of Education Studies at UC San Diego, editor of Everyday Antiracism, and author of the new book Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About—and To—Students Every Day.
Photo credits: Mica Pollock.