Schools Witness a Troubling Revival of Bigotry

By Debra Viadero — May 24, 1989 13 min read

Twenty-five years after the enactment of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, schools are experiencing what many educators characterize as a disturbing resurgence of prejudice.

It is taking, they say, a variety of forms--from the casual schoolyard slur to racist graffiti on lockers, from disputes over Confederate flag waving, to potentially explosive confrontations between ethnic groups.

And no geographic or social setting seems immune. Incidents have been reported in rural communities as well as large urban districts, in integrated schools as well as those that remain essentially segregated, in the North as well as the South.

Though not all schools are experiencing this rise in racial and ethnic tensions, enough are to give national groups a new sense of urgency about finding solutions to matters once thought resolved.

“We talked about this during the 1960’s and 70’s,” says Milton Bins, deputy director of the Council of Great City Schools. “Then, like Moby Dick, it went under.”

Today, he says, “there’s all of a sudden a recognition that what we thought had been accomplished had not been accomplished.”

Mr. Bins is the staff director of a task force of urban superintendents studying the need for bias-free curricula. That effort, to culminate in July with a national report, is among the small but growing number of initiatives directed at the problem.

In February, the National Association for the Education of Young Children weighed in on the subject, publishing a guide for preschool educators that urged them to begin delivering anti-prejudice lessons to toddlers as young as 2.

And, at the local level, more and more school systems are showing an interest in prejudice-reduction programs and multicultural curricula that stress the contributions of blacks and other minority groups.

These efforts, however, are viewed by many as spotty at best. Public attention on youthful racism, they say, has largely been focused on the college-age group, with incidents at large and renowned universities such as Michigan and Dartmouth capturing the media spotlight. The problem in elementary and secondary schools remains, they say, a well-kept secret.

“You would not have people at the finest colleges in the country writing ‘Die, Nigger’ on the walls unless there was a problem in high school,” says Janet H. Caldwell, a program associate at the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, which tracks activity in the area of racial relations nationwide.

Ms. Caldwell notes that there are no hard data on the number of racially motivated incidents in schools. But she estimates that there are many more now than the dozens of major incidents that were reported in the mid-1980’s.

Most such incidents, Ms. Caldwell contends, are never reported. School officials either hide these kinds of problems or deny that they exist.

Robert Sikorski, executive director of an anti-bias watchdog group called North Carolinians Against Racism and Violence, agrees.

“They’ll say that it’s just ‘pranks’ or that it’s the hypersensitivity of black students, or that the students really didn’t know what they were doing,” he says of school authorities faced with racial problems. “That just drives me up a wall.”

Mr. Sikorski’s organization is one of a handful of state groups that keep track of racially motivated incidents in schools and communities.

In North Carolina, he says, school-based, race-related incidents have increased “several fold” since 1987. A total of 21 such incidents occurred in the state last year, he says, including one murder. School officials deny, however, that racial tensions played a part in the student death he includes in his count.

Many of the North Carolina incidents last year involved the Confederate flag.

“What you had was not simply the isolated wearing of a Harley Davidson motorcycle jacket with a Confederate flag on the back,” explains Mr. Sikorski. “We found students organized to have a series of ‘Southern Pride’ days that seemed to be deliberately confrontational.”

At one high school in rural Forsyth County, students showed up for this kind of demonstration armed with guns and knives, he says.

“They would say things like, ‘We have a black history month, why can’t we have a white history month?’ That students could even think they needed a white history month, to me, indicates a problem.”

In other recent incidents:

Three junior-high-school students in San Leandro, Calif., were suspended from classes in April after bringing dolls to school dressed in the hooded, white robes of the Ku Klux Klan. One of the dolls was painted black and wore a noose around its neck.

School administrators in Pekin, Ill., decided to begin giving high-school students lessons in religious and ethnic tolerance after a racially motivated incident there in March. A group of students shouted, “K.K.K. lives forever,” when a black student visited Pekin Community High as part of an interscholastic student-council exchange.

It was the second such incident in that predominantly white, Peoria suburb in less than a year.

In suburban Detroit this month, black students at Groves High School reportedly came to school one morning to find that someone had scrawled hate messages and swastikas on their lockers.

School officials in Water Valley, Miss., started spring vacation two weeks earlier than scheduled this year in order to defuse racial tensions at the local high school. The trouble began when a group of white students waved a Confederate flag during a black-history program at Water Valley High. The incident has prompted black athletes to boycott the school’s baseball and basketball games.

Cleveland high-school students in March formed a group called Students United Against Racism and Apartheid, which helped organize an interracial march on City Hall to protest racial incidents there. Though not focused solely on the schools, the activism highlighted what some see as widening rifts between the races in the Ohio city. As one student organizer told reporters, “There are parts of this city where blacks dare not walk.”

And in Eugene, Ore., a scenic university community touted as one of the most attractive in the nation, a $22,000 survey on school race relations conducted for the local school board found that two-thirds of those interviewed knew about or had witnessed racial incidents. Most-cited were racial jokes and slurs, but fights and the distribution of racist materials were also noted.

Recommendations for dealing with “covert” racism were to be presented to the board this week.

In some communities, such incidents have been attributed, in part, to racial hate groups, notably the young people known as “skinheads.”

These loosely organized gangs range in age from 13 to 25. They are known for shaving their heads, sporting neo-Nazi insignia, and preaching violence against minorities.

The Anti-Defamation League of B’Nai Brith estimated in October that there were 2,000 skinheads active in 21 states--up from a population of 1,000 to 1,500 in 12 states just eight months earlier.

Not all skinheads spout racist ideology, and many do not attend school, having dropped out. But their apparent proliferation remains unsettling for many.

The problem is not so much that these extremist groups exist, experts say, but that the current social climate has fostered their development.

“There’s always been a residual racism deeply rooted in American society that manifests itself in these kinds of groups,” says Asa Hilliard, the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Urban Education at Georgia State University. “This kind of thing pops up when conditions are right.”

The hate crimes committed by such groups often make national headlines. But they remain, like many of the more flagrant school incidents, rare.

What troubles many educators, however, is the escalation they see in a more subtle brand of prejudice. And it, they say, can be seen in school hallways every day, everywhere.

Robert Ricken, a retired school administrator who directs school-based anti-prejudice programs for the ada in Long Island, says his main concern now “is that it’s O.K. to say something [prejudiced] if you don’t say it around another group.”

“In other words, it’s not that you shouldn’t say it, it’s that you shouldn’t say it if there’s a Hispanic, a black, or a Jew around.”

Searching for the whys of this apparent rise in racial tensions at school has been much harder for educators than tracking its characteristics, however. And in this, they are joined by social commentators from a number of fields.

Most often, the reasons advanced for continuing racial difficulties across American society have represented an amalgam of forces, from shifting economic fortunes and demographic tides, to a lack of historical moorings and inappropriate political symbolism.

Many black educators, for example, blame the Reagan Administration for actions that they say, in effect, gave Americans license to be racist.

“Mr. Reagan himself was hostile toward civil rights,” says Barbara A. Sizemore, an associate professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s department of black community education, research, and development.

The former President opposed the extension of the federal Voting Rights Act, she and others note, and appointed to national civil-rights posts people whose commitment to the issue was viewed as questionable.

To Mr. Sikorski of North Carolina, however, the roots of the problem run much deeper.

“You don’t become a racist simply because someone says it’s O.K. to be a racist now,” he says.

In many of the communities in his state where racial tensions flared last year, he says, local economic upheavals and a pervasive ignorance of civil-rights history played a role.

In Durham County, for example, Mr. Sikorski notes that the black students moving to the community are by and large the sons and daughters of middle-class engineers and professionals who work in the high-technology firms of the Research Triangle area.

In contrast, many of the white students who are at the center of the school conflicts come from poorer families laboring in the state’s dying textile and tobacco industries.

“These kids are inheriting their parents’ resentments,” Ms. Caldwell says, “what they perceive as a loss of white-skin privileges.”

This is evidenced, the Atlanta activist says, by their call for a “white history” month. Students know little, she maintains, of the kinds of injustices that gave way to the civil-rights movement.

“What we are dealing with is a whole generation that is not in touch with such things as civil-rights history,” Ms. Caldwell says. “And no one has made it clear to them that this is, in fact, a multicultural society.”

In many locales, other experts say, racial tensions are being exacerbated by record immigration levels, which are bringing many students face-to-face with another culture for the first time in their lives.

Frances Sonnenschein, director of the national education department of the adl, points out that the number of legal immigrants entering the United States between 1981 and 1990 will equal or surpass the 8.7 million that arrived between 1901 and 1910, the historic high mark for immigration to this country.

By the turn of the century, she adds, one of every three students in the nation’s public schools will be a member of a racial or ethnic minority group.

“Schools around the country--even suburban schools and schools in the oddest, most out-of-the-way places--are getting infusions of Hmong, Vietnamese, Chinese, and other ethnic groups,” Ms. Sonnenschein notes. “Every time there are new immigrants, there’s a rise in racist beliefs and prejudice.”

According to Ms. Sonnenschein and others, one means of combatting this inevitable rise in intolerance is teaching children to value cultural diversity and reject prejudice.

Yet these are the kinds of lessons that few children are currently receiving, says Deborah A. Byrnes, an associate professor of education at Utah State University.

Of the 25 elementary-school teachers that she interviewed for a recent study, only two said they had ever used the terms, “racism” or “prejudice” in class. Yet 76 percent of their students, when questioned, could give examples of prejudice they had witnessed.

“There’s a fear that if you talk about it children will somehow become prejudiced,” Ms. Byrnes says. “My feeling is that children can’t fight against it unless they know it exists.”

Ms. Byrnes is one of a number of educators who believe, along with the National Association for the Ed4ucation of Young Children, that prejudice-reduction studies should begin early.

“The preschool years, from age 2 to 5, are the first major developmental places where children begin to develop attitudes about physical characteristics,” says Louise Derman-Sparks, who teaches human development at Pacific Oaks College in California. She wrote the naeyc’s guide on preschool antibias programs.

“Very soon after a young child notices differences,” she says, “they also begin to absorb the prevailing biases in our society.”

“What happens now is that when kids ask questions about why people are racially different,” Ms. Derman-Sparks adds, “parents get embarrassed by it because they don’t want to hurt people’s feelings. Kids begin to pick up that there’s something wrong with those differences.”

But the developmental specialist also cautions against attempting to solve the problem with the kind of multicultural “tourist” curricula she says have become popular in many schools.

“You visit another culture on a special holiday and then you go back to normal life,” Ms. Derman-Sparks says of these curricular programs.

Such programs are also a far cry from the kind of multicultural or “Afrocentric” curricula currently attracting attention in a number of large cities. These initiatives have a dual purpose, according to their adherents: promoting the self-esteem of minority children as well as reducing prejudice.

They seek to accomplish these goals by replacing traditional curricula in every subject area with studies that emphasize the contributions of minorities as well as whites.

For example, says Ms. Sizemore of the University of Pittsburgh, mathematics teachers may point out that, while the Pythagorean theorem is named for a Greek, he, like many scholars of his day, studied in Africa, a great seat of learning at that time.

“There’s a lot of talk about it now, and a lot of effort being put into inservice training,” Ms. Sizemore says of cultural awareness. “But there is not much effort to supplant the monocultural curriculum.”

One of the newest converts to that idea is the Pittsburgh school system, where educators plan next fall to establish the city’s first middle school for multiracial, multiethnic, and multicultural education.

In addition to a multicultural curriculum, the school will also employ staff members expressly trained in recognizing and dealing with students’ cultural differences, and in conflict mediation and the range of student differences in learning style.

Pittsburgh educators also say they are hoping the program will address two other problems that perpetuate the social and economic disparities between blacks and whites: the gap in achievement levels of black and white students and the disproportionately high number of suspensions among black students.

Robert Pipkin, who will be principal of the new school, says of its founding: “The feeling was that there are problems--not only in our schools, but throughout the whole country--with racism emerging.”

“We didn’t want to be sitting back and ignoring that problem,” Mr. Pipkin says. “We wanted to come up with some alternatives. If we don’t do something, this is an issue that can affect the whole country.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 24, 1989 edition of Education Week as Schools Witness a Troubling Revival of Bigotry