Equity & Diversity

Are the Culture Wars Making Students Less Tolerant?

By Eesha Pendharkar — March 31, 2023 5 min read
The rainbow Pride flag flutters from the flag pole at the state Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., on June 17, 2019.
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Fights over lessons of race and racism, LGBTQ+ issues, and books are infiltrating schools even in the most liberal states, and might be resulting in hostile student interactions.

That’s according to a report released in March that surveyed high school principals across California, and was conducted by UCLA researchers.

UCLA and the University of California at Riverside researchers released a report in November 2022 called “Educating for a Diverse Democracy,” which analyzed how political divides have impacted classrooms nationwide.

Researchers used data from that survey to look specifically at 150 California high schools in March 2023, and they found many school leaders encountering the same fights over lessons about race and racism, LGBTQ+ issues, and book bans as those in Republican-led states, such as Florida and Texas. Forty two percent of California principals told the researchers that incidents of intolerance within the community had increased compared to pre-pandemic levels.

California has been a Democrat-led state since 2011. It is also ranked the most diverse state in the contiguous United States, with white students making up just more than one-fifth of the population entering schools.

Almost two thirds of the California principals the researchers surveyed reported substantial local political conflict over educational issues. Fifty-one percent said parents or community members have sought to limit or challenge teaching about certain aspects of race and racism, 49 percent said they had objected to school policies or practices related to LGBTQ+ student rights, 30 percent said parents had raised objections to social emotional learning, and 27 percent said they had tried to push for restricted access to certain school library books, according to the report.

Those percentages are almost identical to the proportion of principals who reported community-level conflict across the country, the report found.

“The surprise here is not that California is different, it is that our public schools are experiencing similar levels of political attacks and conflict with what we have seen across the nation,” said John Rogers, director of the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access and coauthor of the research.

“About two-thirds of schools in the state are experiencing some level of political conflict, mirroring what we have seen in other states,” he continued. “The level of conflict impacting schools would seem to reflect the intensive and pervasive nature of what is happening nationally.”

Purple communities are far more susceptible to culture wars

The nationwide study from November found higher levels of community conflict in purple districts, those where the 2020 vote for former President Donald Trump was between 45 percent and 54.9 percent, than those in conservative, or red, congressional districts, where more than 55 percent of voters chose Trump. But since California has only two red districts, the state-specific report focused on the comparison between Democrat-leaning, or blue communities and those that are considered purple.

Principals in California’s purple districts echoed their nationwide counterparts about the increase in parental and community pressure on race, gender, and sexuality lessons and books.

“We have been beat up emotionally by parents, blamed for all of the ills of society,” said a California principal from a purple community, according to the report, which does not identify the principals mentioned in the report by name or district. “We are tired. Cut us some slack. We went into education to help students. Something needs to change or else we will all quit or retire early. It is exhausting.”

Conflicts between the school and parents over lessons about so-called controversial topics are far more prevalent in California’s purple districts. Principals in those communities were 2.5 times as likely as principals in blue communities (where less than 45 percent of voters voted for Trump) to experience conflict over what should be taught in schools, the report found.

“Our wonderful school counselors also took abuse from parents—one counselor described to me how a parent screamed at her on the phone and called her a ‘homo lover,’” said another principal from a purple community. “It’s quite disheartening to work so hard and care for all our students when so many people are being hateful and threatening.”

Students are more intolerant in districts with culture wars

According to one principal in a blue community, students witnessed a lot of traumatic and divisive political events, such as the insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, and the murder of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and other Black people. Their political beliefs were shaped by their parents’ perspectives, and they could not come to school and discuss these events with classmates and access that diversity of thought, the principal said. So when they came back to school, “they struggled a little bit to have empathy for groups that they didn’t necessarily understand,” the principal said.

That may be one explanation for the increase in student intolerance that the researchers found across the state.

Almost 80 percent of all California principals said that their students had made hostile or demeaning remarks to LGBTQ+ classmates, according to the report. Principals in purple communities were far more likely than those in more liberal ones to report that such behavior occurred frequently. Almost 40 percent reported such comments in purple districts, compared to 22 percent in blue districts.

“In these politically contested communities, where you have parents and community members challenging what’s being taught, challenging the rights of LGBTQ+ students, you see alongside of that heightened hostility and conflict amongst students,” Rogers said.

“Now, I can’t say that there’s a direct causality there,” he added. “But I do think that there’s a general pattern whereby local politics, that’s conflictual … [it] creates a climate in which some young people feel emboldened to act out of racist or anti-queer ideas toward their classmates.”

Students also feel “emboldened to act out racism” in these communities because of the conflict created intentionally by right-wing parents and community members, Rogers said.

More than a third of principals reported students making hostile or racist remarks toward other white or Asian American/Pacific Islander students. Half of California principals reported racist statements directed at Latinx students and two thirds reported such remarks had been made about Black students, the report says. However, Black students make up just 5 percent of public school enrollment in California.

Overall, 93 percent of principals in purple communities said that “the level of political division and incivility” at their schools had increased since the beginning of the pandemic. None said it had gotten better.

“Even as some students are enacting racist beliefs and ideas, other students are stepping up and demonstrating empathy and care towards their fellow student body,” Rogers said. “So I think you have a mixed set of dynamics. It is just the troubling dynamics that have had a huge weight.”

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