Racism on the Rise in the Nation's Schools

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*The Breakdown is The North Star’s daily analysis of an essential news story designed to provide historical context, go beyond the popular headlines, and offer a glimpse of where this story may be going next.

Key Facts: In an atmosphere characterized by a lack of civility in the public sphere, religious intolerance, and the normalization of racist tropes from minstrelsy to blackface, the conditions are ripe for anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism to rear their ugly heads. Recently, high school students in Newport Beach, California were recorded giving Sieg Heil salutes atop red drink cups arranged in the form of a swastika. Although this incident occurred at an off-campus party, the event featured numerous students from Newport Beach High School in affluent Orange County, California. The event caused great consternation, and school and elected officials condemned the incident in the broadest terms possible. Officials quickly organized a town hall to address the situation.

This was not an isolated incident. Students in neighboring counties were found wearing Ku Klux Klan outfits. In South Dakota, students participated in a play donning KKK robes. The school district quickly apologized and sought guidance on the matter. These incidents are not only reflective of our political moment but deeply symptomatic of unresolved and systematic racial and ethnic antipathy in the culture.

Historical Facts: Anti-Semitic, racist, and neo-Nazi disturbances are on the rise. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), there has been a significant uptick over the last four years in bias, ethnic, religious, and racial incidents. In fact, almost 54 percent of religious hate crimes specifically targeted Jews. In schools, most of the episodes involve verbal insults and graffiti. These acts do not rise to the level of hate crimes and are labeled as bias incidents. The Internet has also become a haven for bias and hate. Sites like Gab, a website used by extremists and racists, was temporarily shut down last fall after it was revealed the suspect in the Pittsburgh synagogue attack posted on the platform. Unfortunately, hateful rhetoric often escalates in the public sphere.

The imagery of white men with torches chanting “Blood and soil” in Charlottesville, which culminated in the murder of activist Heather Heyer, and the attack on a Jewish synagogue in Squirrel Hill, which was the nation’s most deadly anti-Semitic attack, are reminders of how hatred can turn deadly in the public sphere.

Beneath the Surface: School districts have specific policies, rules, and guidance in place regarding ethnic, racial, and religious sensitivity. These policies are designed to assist schools in how to avoid incidents like those described here. Several districts have argued those rules are disobeyed or ignored. Hasty apologies to the public have followed. Many parents, community, and anti-hate groups are dissatisfied with the approach. Dismayed with the breakdown in leadership and policy adherence, these events have provoked spirited town hall meetings and calls for change.

Next Steps: Many members of the community, and anti-racist and bias experts, are calling for more sensitivity and tolerance training for administrators, teachers, and students. Beyond town halls and hand-wringing, school districts and communities are being forced to take concrete steps to help students understand race and anti-Semitism. Experts suggest intensive education programs on anti-Semitism and hate and bias. Others have called for increased law enforcement vigilance and banning neo-Nazi marches and activities. All observers believe the educating the next generation about hate as an anti-democratic value can encourage tolerance, understanding, and enlightenment.

About the Author

Stephen G. Hall is a sections editor for The North Star. He is a historian specializing in 19th and 20th century African American and American intellectual, social and cultural history and the African Diaspora. Hall is the author of A Faithful Account of the Race: African American Historical Writing in Nineteenth-Century America. He is working on a new book exploring the scholarly production of Black historians on the African Diaspora from 1885 to 1960.