Racism in Schools
After a surge in racist incidents at East Bay schools, students, parents, and administrators start the new academic year asking what they can do about it.
It all started on a bathroom wall.
Two words in black ink were scribbled above the urinals in a school bathroom—whites and colored—recalling an ugly history of hate and discrimination.
Alanah Winston, at the time a senior at California High in San Ramon, discovered a photo of the racist graffiti while scrolling through Twitter. “I was instantly on edge,” says Winston, who is black. “To see something so divisive—coloreds versus whites—kind of re-creating history, as if that’s something we should repeat, was scary for me.”
Winston contacted the owner of the Twitter account, a friend at a nearby high school, and traced the photo back to Cal High. As soon as she realized the hostility came from her own campus, Winston brought it to administrators. Cal High staff ultimately found no trace of the graffiti; they suspect a Good Samaritan quietly erased it. Within a week, a student admitted to the vandalism.
That was last October. By Thanksgiving, several more messages of hate had appeared in big, brash letters across schools in the San Ramon Valley Unified School District.
“No n—s alowed” (sic) and “This bathroom is not to be used by f—ing n—s” were scrawled in green marker in another Cal High bathroom. The n-word was written on a homecoming poster in the hallway. At Monte Vista High, the words whites and colored appeared again above two urinals.
Cal High’s Black Student Union (BSU) urged administrators to take a strong stand against the bigoted behavior, arguing the lackluster response to the first incident emboldened other students to follow suit. The student newspaper reported that “the backlash from the BSU was swift and organized, and their emotions even more raw.”
As the president of the BSU, Winston took a leading role in driving the conversation on campus and in her community. Still, she remembers “looking around my classes at people talking about it [wondering], ‘Who’s supportive of it? Who thinks it’s funny? Who’s retweeting it?’ I just began to look at all my classmates a little differently.”
Cal High Principal Sarah Cranford, a Lafayette native, admits she was ignorant of the racist undercurrent at her school.
“I was surprised not only that there [are] students who could have such negative, hurtful, and hateful things to say, but also that anybody would feel comfortable writing it on the walls here,” she says.
In fact, the school year opened with a program aimed at celebrating diversity and unifying the campus community. The weeklong event included assemblies and activities encouraging students to interact with classmates from different grades, cliques, and backgrounds. “The motto of it was that it’s hard to hate someone whose story you know,” says Cranford.
A Surge in Hate
San Ramon isn’t alone in dealing with racism among its students. Schools throughout the East Bay—and the nation—saw a huge spike in the past year in racist and discriminatory acts. An elementary school in Alameda was hit with racist graffiti, as was a Castro Valley high school. Two 15-year-old boys admitted to spray painting swastikas at a Fremont junior high school; at another Fremont school, students spray-painted a swastika in what they claimed was a prank. A high school student in Albany created an Instagram account displaying edited images of classmates, all students of color, and an African American basketball coach with nooses around their necks, as well as side by side with pictures of apes.
Many people point to a divisive election season in which Donald Trump’s vow to “build a wall” and his demand for a “complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” for emboldening those wanting to express offensive viewpoints.
“I would go home and listen to one of Trump’s speeches or one of his rallies, and just be terrified,” says Winston. “Then, I would come to school and see a Make America Great Again hat. It was like, I don’t want to be here; I don’t want to focus; I don’t want to do schoolwork.”
And it only got worse after the election. Within a week of Trump’s victory, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported 149 incidents of intimidation and harassment occurring at K-12 schools, more than any other place. (In comparison, the FBI’s report on hate crimes recorded 184 incidents in K-12 schools for the entire year of 2015.)
“How can you tell students in high school that it’s not OK to do it when the president of the country did it and got elected as a result? There’s this implicit understanding that certain things are OK now that weren’t OK before,” says Hina Khan-Mukhtar, a parent of a former student in the San Ramon Valley District.
Khan-Mukhtar, who is Muslim, was stunned when she learned her son had often been the victim of bullying because of his religious background. She says classmates would shout “9/11” in his direction at school, for example, or “say things like, ‘If I upset you, are you going to slit my throat?’
“He accepted it as part of the package of being a Muslim and the times we’re in right now, which really broke my heart,” she says.
And when the perpetrators are adolescents, it gets even more complicated. In left-leaning Contra Costa County, where nearly 70 percent of voters marked their ballots for Hillary Clinton, some students appeared to try on conservatism for size—or at least a highly distorted version of it. Cal High Assistant Principal Catie Hawkins says she saw students warp Republican values to trumpet messages of “ultrahate,” though she attributes some of it to teenage rebellion. “I’ve taught teenagers for over 20 years. You have Mohawks, all the piercings,” she says. “This is another vehicle to get bad attention.”
A Deeply Rooted Issue
Despite its progressive politics, the Bay’s liberal reputation can obscure deep-seated racial issues. As one parent warned at an Albany school board meeting devoted to bullying and harassment, the region’s supposed open-mindedness creates an “illusion of inclusion.”
“If you live in a community like [the Bay Area] and think you don’t have any racial problems, let me tell you: You have racial problems,” says Paul Black, president of the Albany Unified School District Board of Education and a longtime Albany resident. “People were coming out and saying, ‘You think this is new? This has always been going on.’ ”
A large reason why this tension remained concealed is because we are often unaware of our own racist attitudes, explains Kimberly Bradley, a clinical psychologist specializing in racial equity and cultural responsiveness at the National Child Welfare Workforce Institute’s Bay Area branch. It starts with our implicit biases, the unconscious beliefs and prejudices that color our perceptions of others.
“We all have them,” says Bradley, adding that schools need to work with people rather than shame them for their unconscious prejudices. “It’s not just a white people issue; it’s an all of us issue,” she says.
Implicit biases often take the form of microaggressions—actions and comments that degrade a marginalized group—like some of the demeaning jokes that Khan-Mukhtar’s son has endured at school.
“You tend to think that the racist is the person who tells you to go back to your country,” says Khan-Mukhtar. “But sometimes, the bigot can also be the one who just ‘teases’ you based on a caricature of your community members.”
And sometimes, that teasing goes too far.
Last spring, a candidate for student body president at San Ramon Valley High made a campaign video showing two teens of Afghan descent playing terrorists, abducting and torturing another teen. The online video included offensive stereotypes of Middle Easterners and Muslims.
The student, who ultimately was elected class president, alleged it was a parody of Hollywood action movies, which have been saturated with storylines about Muslim extremists since 9/11.
Superintendent Rick Schmitt says a changed media landscape exposes students to all kinds of content they wouldn’t have seen before the rise of the Internet.
“Now, there’s so much available for kids, good and bad,” says Schmitt. “They’re online, and they’re finding things that [previously] weren’t readily available to middle school and high school kids.”
On the Internet, kids are often confronted with racially insensitive imagery and information, so those messages can become normalized on social media. Add in teens’ notorious impulsivity, and that hate can quickly spill over into the real world.
Ray Newsome, the Albany High girls’ basketball coach who was targeted in a racist Instagram account that published an image of him with a noose drawn around his neck, knows that all too well.
Speaking at a packed Albany school board meeting devoted to addressing bullying and discrimination, Newsome recounted the horrific history of lynching in the U.S., which led to the deaths of thousands of black Americans and continued during the lifetimes of many high schoolers’ parents.
“The lynchings were community sanctioned,” Newsome told the audience. “What will this community sanction?”
As the school year wore on at Cal High, attacks and heightened tension gave way to conversations about how to move forward.
“The silver lining of this is that it kind of brought it all to the forefront for us to really focus on—and do something about [it on] our campus,” says Cranford.
The San Ramon Valley District had previously taken steps to create inclusive campuses, helping organize student clubs for LGBTQ and other minority groups, as well as initiating bullying and antidiscrimination policies. Following the rash of incidents last year, Cal High ramped up this effort by joining the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) No Place for Hate program.
In this program, the ADL works with schools nationwide to disrupt the bias that leads to bullying and discrimination. The organization provides free staff trainings and access to lessons, resources, and tips on how faculty and staff can talk with their students about issues like racism.
Jacqueline Regev, director of education for the Central Pacific region of the ADL, says the process is tailored to each school’s needs, but the key steps are consistent.
“The [goal] is community building and understanding ourselves, our own identity. We believe that bias is learned, and so it can be unlearned,” says Regev.
No Place for Hate schools must create student-led coalitions with staff, administration, and families to bolster inclusion on campus. Additionally, everyone in the school must sign a Resolution of Respect, pledging to combat discrimination and promote harmony.
When issues do arise, schools have to be ready.
In light of recent events, many districts are reassessing or creating new protocols for bullying and discrimination to help students know when they’re crossing a line.
Winston says she and her classmates know what punishment they face for breaking the dress code or cutting class, but the penalty is murkier “if I call someone a racial slur,” she says. “That’s why kids have so much courage to do so because there’s no written
So far, students behind two of the recent incidents have been identified and disciplined.
Rather than discipline, Cal High teacher Regina Turner says she and her colleagues try to create teachable moments out of the microaggressions and questionable comments that sometimes arise in class discussions.
“It’s easy when a kid says something that’s off-color or perhaps off-putting that you just say, ‘No, don’t do that.’ But that doesn’t really teach them anything,” says Turner.
A Community Effort
Changing campus climate takes time. New policies require approval and implementation; culturally inclusive lesson plans can’t take time away from Common Core and state testing; and implicit biases are stubborn.
That’s why Cal High’s distinction as a No Place for Hate school lasts only one year: The ADL requires schools to reapply annually to show an ongoing effort to reduce bias and bullying.
Winston, who served on Cal High’s equity committee and has had regular conversations with Cranford since first seeing the photo of the bathroom graffiti, says schools need to do more than educate the campus community. They must expand it, particularly by hiring teachers from more diverse backgrounds.
“Having people like that who have been around diversity and really appreciate and understand and love it is what we need on campus because they spread that love for diversity,” says Winston, adding that only two of the school’s 125 teachers are black.
For now, students like Winston are guiding the conversation. After the cluster of incidents at the school, attendance at BSU meetings shot up from a couple dozen to about 150 students.
“More and more kids wanted to talk about it, and it wasn’t just black kids anymore,” says Winston. “Soon, it became Muslim students, Hispanic students, female students: Pretty much any marginalized group came because they knew it was a safe place. They felt like their voices could be heard here.” Winston adds that many white students started attending the meetings, too.
Cal High’s Muslim Student Association (MSA) saw a similar effect, says former club president Basil Rizwan. A growing number of Muslim and non-Muslim students showed up at MSA meetings, often filling every seat in the room.
And during a year in which Rizwan felt Islamophobia was “overwhelming at points,” not a single one of his female Muslim classmates chose to stop wearing a hijab.
“In fact, it went the other way, where one of my friends started wearing the hijab because she felt like it was her responsibility to show everyone that she’s Muslim,” says Rizwan.
Parents, too, have mobilized. Cranford says some parents who were previously uninvolved at school have been energized to serve on task forces, help organize events, and support the school any way they can.
Still, plenty of work remains for students, parents, and administrators—at Cal High, at schools around the East Bay, and across the nation.
As Winston heads to the University of San Diego this fall, she has wavering confidence in Cal High’s progress but urges on the fight.
“Whether or not there is recognition, appreciation, or that feeling of safety doesn’t mean you can step down. I know that it’s scary, and I know that there are risks, but at the end of the day, real change is made when there’s adversity facing you,” says Winston. “If [you] can just have the courage to take that risk, great change can be made.”
While scrolling through Twitter, Alanah Winston finds a photo taken of racist graffiti at her school: whites and colored written above the urinals in a boys’ bathroom. “We will not tolerate hateful speech of any kind on our campus,” Principal Sarah Cranford wrote in an e-mail to parents. By Thanksgiving, the school was hit four more times by offensive graffiti.
A racist Instagram account started by a student is discovered by the school, sparking outrage from the community. Images on the account depict students of color and an African American basketball coach with nooses drawn around their necks, or alongside photos of apes. Thirteen students ultimately faced disciplinary measures.
Castro Valley High
A student’s locker and several building pillars are vandalized with the n-word and other racist messages. The next day, the same racial slur appeared on a school bathroom mirror, spurring students to hold forums on how to address racism on campus.
A school-wide assembly is held to address anti-Semitic incidents, including students exchanging Nazi salutes in the hallways, forming a human swastika during a dance routine for a gym class, and using racial slurs against classmates. Victims of the bullying claim the incidents have been going on for months. Several students were later suspended.
San Ramon Valley High
Hundreds of students walk out of class to protest a racially insensitive campaign video produced by the incoming student body president. The video, which was published on Twitter in February, depicts two Afghan students as members of ISIS who kidnap and torture a third student. The school district
allowed the student body president to retain his leadership role.
“Whether or not there is recognition, appreciation, or that feeling of safety doesn’t mean you can step down. … at the end of the day, real change is made when there’s adversity.”
California High Principal
“The silver lining of this is that it kind of brought it all to the forefront for us to really focus on—and do something about [it on] our campus.”
Talking About Racism
When it comes to talking with your teens about racism, it can be difficult to find the right words. Here are five tips on how to start the conversation.
1. Keep talking. Even if your child doesn’t start the dialogue, bring up current events and other day-to-day issues to discuss larger topics.
2. Stay involved. Get familiar with the influences in your child’s life: TV shows, songs, favorite websites, and even school cliques. Talk to your child about a subtle message in a song lyric, or the stereotypes people may assign to different social groups.
3. Walk the walk. Take an honest look at your own actions, language, and beliefs, and ask yourself whether they align with the values you want to instill in your child.
4. Expand horizons. Help your child reach outside his or her comfort zone. Encourage volunteering and other activities that will widen his or her perspective and social circle.
5. Support their activism. Empowering teens to speak out on causes they care about helps them find their voice and lets them know they can have an impact on their community. Find more tips on splcenter.org.