School Climate & Safety Opinion

Hate Speech Is on the Rise

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 24, 2016 5 min read
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It was the day of this year’s Boston Marathon. An ESPN radio host in New York’s Capital District was commenting on the Ethiopian runners who took the top honors for the day. In doing so, he made remarks that were so repugnant we won’t repeat them here. We wrote the channel to confirm we had heard correctly. We received a response stating that “in retrospect it was an inappropriate comment in a vain attempt to be funny.” And there you have it. The harm was done. Hanging unrepentantly in cars, homes, gyms and offices of thousands was a racial and ethnic slur that not long ago would have merited outrage and maybe even disciplinary action. Now, sensitivity for others has been labeled “political correctness” and tossed to the wind. Say what you will is the new norm. Some even admire it as speaking truth and as unleashed freedom. Stunned, we found ourselves saying when and how did this happen in a country where diversity has been our strength and where so many of our founders were outcasts form other less tolerant places?

Hate speech is on the rise, at least in politics and the media. The fear it breeds is dangerous and threatens to divide us even further. New immigrants have always faced a bit of backlash form those who were here before them. Our history with slavery might suggest that we have always struggled with a current flowing beneath the surface of our society that wants to demean, own, or abuse those who are different from us. Ethnic name calling and discrimination are not new here.

Of course, generalities are never accurate. Rarely, can we think of anything that applies to “all”, not even all Jews, Christians, or Muslims, not all white, Asian, Hispanic or black people nor all LGBT people. And, generalities can be positive or negative in speech and belief and can be harmful either way; Asian children as super smart, young black men as dangerous, Mexicans as criminals and rapists or Muslims as terrorists.

Schools Can Make A Difference
According to the National Center for Education Statistics there are 3.1 million full time teachers in about 98,500 public schools, with 98, 500 principals and 13,500 superintendents. These are the professionals who are responsible for what is learned in schools every day. We can debate, as we have for decades, whether we are a melting pot or a mosaic but we have never been homogenous. And wasn’t it in our public schools where we learned to get along with those who were not like us? We have invested time, money and purpose to eliminate bullying from schools only to find its ugliness surfacing more openly among adults.

From the beginning, public education as been vital in our democracy. The intent, to prepare children for a productive and fulfilling life, promoting the common good, and reducing inequalities in our society continues. The idea of the nation as a melting pot assumed that we could meld all our differences into a common culture. Yet, immigrants have always struggled to retain their religious practices and cultural mores while living within our ever-evolving society. (ASCD Infographic)

Recent calls for intervention by bystanders who see a Muslim person being harassed include “say something, intervene, call for help.” Growing Islamaphobia resembles all other states of mind and heart that allow human differences to become sources of fear and hate. As educators, we have an opportunity to help the future generation of adults in our country welcome, live and work with people who are different than they.

Change Begins With Self Examination
But first, there must be an inward turn, a look by each of us into our own hearts and minds. “Say something, intervene, call for help” applies to bullying, suspicious behavior, packages left unattended, people with heavy clothing...and that is already being taught. But there are more subtle biases that play out in our lives and in our schools. Are there differences in the expectations of black and white students, boys and girls, gifted and disabled, high achievers and low achievers, children living in wealth and children living in poverty? Are they spoken to differently? Looked at differently? Are there ways teachers and leaders deal differently with the parents of these children?

Addressing the growing Islamaphobia is only one door through which educators can lead toward a different way of being and living. Social psychologists Robert Livingston of Northwestern and Brian Drwecki of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found:

Because evolution predisposed people to distrust the “other,” Livingston says, most of us internalize negative feelings toward our “different” neighbors whether we want to or not, and ridding ourselves of them is a complicated task: “You can’t by sheer force of will change your affective or visceral response to something.” He argues that although reason alone is powerless to change that response, positive interpersonal experiences or continued exposure to positive images of the outgroup can help.

Bias cannot be outlawed. Laws can change our behaviors, not our beliefs. Beliefs change by choice and usually over time. It is a deeply personal process. But, by sheer numbers, educators have an opportunity to promote the common good and reduce inequalities by changing the manner in which bias is recognized and confronted in schools. Each individual needs acceptance and a place to belong.This is especially important for children. Whether that becomes a small, isolated group or a school community will make all the difference for the child and his/her family.

They come to us gay, straight, transgender, black, white, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, confident, fragile; our job is to be sure all are treated with dignity. Then, each can experience the place in our own humanity that links to the humanity in them. Then, the eyes of the child grabs the heart of the educator. Perhaps these are the most important moments for a child in school. Beyond all skills and knowledge we can teach and they can learn, we are touching lives and creating futures that are realized years later.

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or by Email.

Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.