[OP-ED]: Racism and the Trump effect at the high school where I teach
My two sons used to come home from a day at high school complaining that ludicrous accusations of racism were as common as the desks in the classrooms. I chalked it up to adolescent exaggeration.
After having spent the current academic year as a teacher surrounded by rowdy high-schoolers, I can attest that they were right.
In the hallways, at assemblies, in my classroom, “That’s racist!” was a common refrain for most of the early fall.
Usually it was a punch line: Making a reference to the wipe-able board at the front of the classroom, aka a “whiteboard”? “That’s racist!”
When I asked a Latina student if her mother was broken up about the recent death of Mexican balladeer Juan Gabriel, a non-Hispanic pupil jokingly suggested it was “racist” of me to single out this Mexican-descended student for her opinion.
During a class in which we analyzed “the Lennie standard” -- a shorthand term for the legal decision barring the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities -- I posted a picture of Bobby J. Moore, the defendant in the Supreme Court case. And boom: Someone shouted, for a laugh, that showing the picture of the subject of our investigation was “racist!”
Other times it was clear that the person lobbing the term was simply misunderstanding the charge of racism. One day, a student, who was herself an immigrant, described hearing a peer’s voice in a training video. “Oh, I think this boy speaking is Asian,” she said. Another pupil chimed in: “That’s racist!” My co-teacher said, “No. That student was, in fact, born and raised in China. Noticing this is not racist, it is a factual observation.”
As recently as October, I had not heard “That’s racist!” in relation to a genuine race-fueled confrontation or slight. It seemed to be a throwaway line that was injected into nearly any conversation for ironic or humorous effect, even sometimes by students of color.
This all changed in November.
After the presidential election, the concept of racism got real and played itself out in classrooms, hallways, playgrounds and on school buses. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights advocacy organization, after the election, K-12 teachers across the country reported an upswing in verbal harassment, the use of slurs and derogatory language, and disturbing incidents involving swastikas, Nazi salutes and Confederate flags.
All of a sudden, students were no longer toying with the term “racism.” After the president’s inauguration, there were the realities of Muslim-country bans, an uptick in high-profile deportations and the associated racial profiling that accompanies both.
At least in classrooms I’ve observed, instead of being used as a laugh line, students are now using the term “racism” with more reverence. Because of the spike in race-fueled graffiti, bullying and actual assaults of minority students in schools, racism is now typically discussed as part of larger conversations about how student communities get roiled when peers act out in what can sometimes be politically tense school climates.
Though due to a negative circumstance -- the normalization of anti-immigrant and anti-minority bigotry -- it’s a good thing that young people (and even some adults) are refocused on the painful reality of everyday racism.
The truth of the matter is that, regardless of our race, ethnicity, gender or religion, we all have prejudices and biases that have been passed on to us by family, friends, institutions and society at large. It’s time to understand which of these views we each hold and why.
For eight years, Americans got to pretend that racism was over because, after all, the nation had come together to elect, and then re-elect, our first African-American president.
However, it’s pretty obvious that none of us is as enlightened and free of bias as we had wished -- whether we’re white people harboring bias toward minorities, or people of color who have decided that all white people are supremacists.
Last week, responding to pressure from Jewish groups who had criticized him for not speaking out against a national rash of anti-Semitism, President Trump finally uttered the words so many of us had been waiting for since election night when he promised to unite our country: “We have to fight bigotry, intolerance and hatred in all of its very ugly forms.”
Let’s hope this isn’t just a throwaway line. The nation needs our president to really mean it and start acting like the “least racist” person he believes himself to be.