This article from The Nation about the "Jena Six," a group of African American students in Louisiana who face trial for retaliating against a student who made a racial slur, comes out at a really interesting time for me. (Disclosure: the writer of this article, Mark Sorkin, is my soon-to-be brother-in-law! He keeps the world up to date on juvenile justice issues on his blog.)
Last year, having only worked with New York City high school kids, I would not have believed teenagers capable of making the racial slurs that prompted the reaction of the Jena Six. After today, I can believe it. I can see something like this happening at my school.
I don't think my white students would ever intentionally make a racial slur against a peer. And I don't think that when they hung nooses from the "white-only tree," the members of the Jena High School rodeo team thought they were being racist. I think they thought they were making a joke.
How did these kids get to the point where they thought this extremely ugly act was an acceptable form of humor? One side of it is what I think of as the South Park Syndrome. Yes, I know how old-fogeyish it sounds, but I think shows like South Park and The Family Guy that make viewers laugh with the shockingly taboo are shaping how many teens in this country think about race -- in a very negative way.
Take a look at this clip from Family Guy, and if you want to be even more depressed, scroll down and take a look at how YouTube viewers responded to it. To me, the leap isn't so far from laughing at Kermit with a shotgun to hanging up nooses on a tree.
The other side of it is the fact that our students know this is supposed to be funny, but they don't really have enough knowledge to understand why it's so shocking. It's on TV, so it's okay to laugh at it. Maybe they have a little twinge of discomfort, like this kid, but they don't understand why this kind of humor is hurtful and harmful.
So the onus is on social studies teachers, I believe, to not only teach kids the historical context for these things, but also to give students the skills and safe space to really be able to think and speak about race.
Now the question is, HOW do we do that?