They say that boys will be boys, but what do we make of those boys when they attempt to lynch another child, or put on Ku Klux Klan outfits and burn a cross in the backyard?
As the New York Times reported, on August 28 a group of white teens in the town of Claremont, New Hampshire, attacked an 8-year old black biracial boy. In an interview with The Root, the boy’s mother said that after the older white boys put a rope around their own necks, they told her son that it was his turn. The 8-year old got on a picnic table and put the rope around his neck and one of teenagers came and pushed him off of the picnic table — leaving him hanging. None of the teens helped him. The mother found out the details of what happened from the victim’s 11-year old sister, who was with him at the time. The 11-year old, according to the mother, said that the boy was grabbing at his neck while kicking his feet and turning purple before he dropped to the ground.
That could have been my son, or your son for that matter, and one can only imagine the trauma that afflicts him. This shocking incident and others point to a disturbing problem of children and teens committing crimes of bias, bigotry or prejudice based on one’s race or ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Earlier this month, five football players from Creston Community High School in Creston, Iowa, were disciplined for appearing in the photo wearing KKK hoods, burning a cross and waving a Confederate flag. One of the students was apparently holding a rifle.
In Albuquerque, New Mexico, two high school juniors were suspended in August after posting a doctored Snapchat photo depicting a black student surrounded by her classmates who were wearing KKK hoods.—an attempt at a “joke” that was by no means funny.
There are many things society can and must do to stem the tide of hate crimes among children, and strike a balance between punishment for offenders and education. Society must address the conditioning and insecurities of young men, the aggression and antisocial behavior that may cause them to blame others for their problems and commit these heinous acts, and the white power groups that may lure and influence them.
Adults can help combat stereotypes by exposing children to different types of cultures. Parents should talk to children about hate and encourage empathy and tolerance among adolescents while their brains are still developing and they are susceptible to peer pressure. We must encourage kindness and teach them the lessons of history, of slavery and racism, of anti-Semitism and the genocide of the Holocaust. We cannot sugarcoat these hard issues or sweep them under the rug, but must confront them head on.
The commission of hate crimes by juveniles and young people is more prevalent than many in society may realize. Although hate crimes are under-reported, according to data collected by the federal government from 2004 to 2015, 15.4% of offenders in violent hate crimes were age 17 or younger, and 16.7% were between the ages of 18 and 29. Seventeen percent of hate crime victims were between 12 and 17 years old, and nearly a third of victims were 24 and under. Young people experience violent hate crimes at a higher rate than people age 50 and over. A 2003 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics and the National Center for Education Statistics found that 12% of teens have been the targets of hate-related words, and 36% have reported seeing hate graffiti at school.
Two studies, conducted between 2007 and 2009, on adolescent health and bias-related harassment found that of those who were harassed or bullied in school, over one third were victimized because of personal characteristics such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or disability. This bias-based harassment compromised the health of the victims.
“School bullies become tomorrow’s hate crimes defendants, while victims of bullying are more likely to drop out of school, struggle in class, engage in illegal drug use or become involved in the criminal justice system,” said a 2012 blog post from the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. Although these acts of intolerance and violence by the hands of young people are by no means a new phenomenon, this past year has been a particularly troubling one. During the campaign season and in the months following the election, more hate incidents took place in America’s elementary, middle and high schools, with hundreds of troubling events, including bullying, violence and creating fear and anxiety among children, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Further, there has been a surge in noose hate crime incidents this year, including those taking place on college campuses and K-12 public schools. These incidents continue, even as the election-related surge in hate crimes subsided.
Similarly, student hate crimes and incidents nearly doubled in the month leading up to the Brexit vote in the UK last year, in a campaign fueled by racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Our children are watching. Society must be mindful of the messages we are sending to them when lawmakers advocate lynching those who oppose Confederate statues, and when the President reacts to white supremacists and neo-Nazis in Charlottesville with a figurative wink and a nod and compares them to peaceful antifascist protesters. When leaders support punitive measures against Latino immigrants or Muslim Americans, whether in the streets or through discriminatory laws and racial profiling, they create an environment that normalizes the scapegoating of these groups and the hatred and violence that even children perpetrate against them.
Everyone is familiar with the old civil rights video footage from the South, where white young men would kick, punch and spit in the faces of black students going to school or sitting at a segregated lunch counter. Those images were not aberrations, but rather reflected an environment of hate and a culture of intolerance, where the adults set the tone for the behavior of young people. And surely many of those young hooligans are somewhere alive today. Moreover, not only are they alive, they had children and instilled those toxic, antisocial values in them. What type of role model did they serve for their own children? Yet, this is not merely history, but rather is taking place in the twenty-first century.
While the views of white supremacists continue to be passed down through generations, there are ways to counter its effects on the most impressionable members of society. The ADL’s A World of Difference Institute offers anti-bias and diversity training to schools, colleges and social service workers and community organizations. SPLC organizes students on college campuses to speak out against bias and bigotry, address the far-right, and create change in the community. “Children soak up stereotypes and bigotry from media, from family members, at school, and on the playground,” the SPLC writes in their anti-bias guide. The organization emphasizes that adults should be a role model. “If parents treat people unfairly based on differences, children likely will repeat what they see. Be conscious of your own dealings with others.”
We must talk to young people about intolerance, help them fight it and seek solutions and alternatives, but adults must also look within and assess the conditions we are creating for the next generation when we mainstream hate. If we fail to act and choose to do nothing, children will continue to act in hate.