A few weeks ago in my Sociology 11 class at Suffolk Community College, the subject for class discussion was social tolerance and diversity. We used a traditional sociological definition for tolerance and diversity. A number of very sensitive cases were presented around color, sexual orientation and marriage. Needless to say, the discussion got intense and at times very elevated.
It became clear as each group presented its' views on a variety of very real human circumstances that we as a culture have really shackled people's thinking. In some of the sharing, it was apparent that students are growing up in very prejudicial environments, using religion and ethnicity to justify their narrow-minded viewpoints.
All in class that day agreed that prejudice is a learned attitude and discrimination a learned behavior. They also agreed that these negative attitudes and behaviors are often very subtle and infectious, making them even more dangerous and destructive.
As I listened to a wide range of sharing from a very diversified group of students, I realized that fear was their greatest impediment. Most who had strong feelings about diversity and tolerance admitted that their feelings were grounded in fear and secondhand story telling that only further paralyzed their thinking.
What was troubling was that a number of students were content with their bigoted feelings based on secondhand story telling and stereotyping. The attitude I was sensing was if it does not touch me, it does not exist and/or does not matter.
Needless to say, we had an intense discussion around this issue. A number of students felt compelled to challenge the attitudes of some of their classmates. To their credit, it was done with respect and deep insight. By the end of class, everyone's thinking was at least stretched and students were considering some perspectives that in the past would have been dismissed.
After that class, I realized that we in education and religion are doing a less than acceptable job in addressing the issues of prejudice and discrimination. These are sensitive and delicate issues. Most people don't want to ruffle people's feathers. However, by our silence we say that some things are okay.
It is never acceptable to tolerate anti Semitic comments, racial jokes or negative comments about someone's ethnicity or sexual orientation. If we keep silent, we are saying that these issues aren't important enough.
A cross burning on a Haitian family's front lawn, a swastika sticker on the door of a temple and a racial slur painted on the wall of a handball court are all outrageous behaviors that must be confronted. Those responsible must be held accountable. These behaviors are not humorous, nor should they be dismissed as child's play, as some would like.
If these behaviors have been committed by teenagers who have not been held accountable, what will they feel justified in doing as adults? Every day we hear another horrific story of violence, hate, human exploitation and destruction.
People are not born to hate or discriminate. They learn these attitudes and behaviors within the environment in which they are raised. Our schools must take a more aggressive approach in addressing these concerns on every level.
When a person of any age commits a hate crime, he or she must be held fully accountable. Hate is hate. Unaddressed, it fuels a violence and discrimination that could be lethal.
PJ is a junior in high school. He is an average student who plays seasonal sports. He comes from a reasonable home. He and a group of friends were arrested after a lengthy investigation concerning a wide range of graffiti hate slogans dealing with race and color.
When the boys were arrested, they played dumb. They said they had no idea of what the police were referring to. Finally, after hours of interrogation, one by one each young man confessed to his part. PJ was probably the most resistant. Even after he admitted to his part, he played it down and said, "We were only kidding. We didn't mean to hurt anyone."
Meanwhile, PJ was responsible for spray-painting some reprehensible, crude remarks across a Jewish family's driveway. Their first grade daughter was petrified to go to school and presently lives with fear every day. While PJ alleges, it was just a teenage prank.
Upon further investigation, it becomes clear that PJ's behavior was not just the behavior of an immature teenager. Rather it was the planned out strategy of a young man who claimed to be a neo-Nazi, a teenager who was quoted as saying that "the Holocaust was just an event in history" and that "people should just get on with life." His parents confided that PJ was reading some very bizarre racist publications and was visiting a variety of hate sites on the internet. As parents, they expressed tremendous frustration in not knowing what to do or how to handle their son's behavior.
Before their son was arrested, the few people in the mental health community they reached out to advised them to be watchful, but thought it was a phase that PJ would quickly grow out of.
Unfortunately, they underestimated the gravity of their son's situation. It seems that he is firmly planted in this very twisted way of thinking.
If you were to meet PJ, you would be disarmed by his charm, wit and capacity to articulate. He really believes that it is his right to hate and discriminate. He will concede, since he has been arrested, that he does not have the right to deface other people's property, malign another's reputation or mentally harass and intimidate them.
Where does this kind of hate come from? What can we do to arrest it and ultimately eliminate it? There is no magical formula that can be applied universally. We as a total community have to work with every facet to educate people of all ages about tolerance and respect. Together we must confront our fears that grow out of ignorance and lack of experience.
Our schools can be the fertile heartland of transformation and profound social change or they can be terrible wastelands of human potential! With a cooperative spirit, I believe that transformation and profound social change are possible!