By Lily Grenis
When Deynaba Farah began hearing more stories of violence against Muslims this past year, she feared for her life.
Farah, who is Muslim, works with youths at the Islamic Society of CNY. The schoolchildren she mentors and her five younger siblings have recently expressed the same degree of fright to her.
Hatred directed at the American Muslim community is certainly not new. However, Farah said it increased during the 2016 presidential election due to President-elect Donald Trump’s intolerant rhetoric.
“Now that there’s this whole spark of Islamophobia, it’s almost as bad as it was when 9/11 just happened,” she said before the election. “Mr. Trump comes out, and he just sparks the fire that was going on and it starts all over again. … Because I wear the hijab, I am a symbol of what happened that day.”
Trump built his campaign on promises to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, deport masses of illegal immigrants and ban Muslims from entering the country.
Farah, a Syracuse University senior, is not alone in her assessment. In addition to the pre-election hostilities she described, hate incidents toward marginalized groups such as Muslims, immigrants and African-Americans skyrocketed after the election. In the 10 days following election day, the Southern Poverty Law Center, an American civil-rights organization, tallied almost 900 incidents of hateful harassment nationwide. The center counted any report of intolerance-fueled harassment against a specific group as a hate incident.
Nearly 40 percent of these incidents took place in schools, from elementary schools to colleges.
This alarming statistic epitomizes “The Trump Effect,” a phenomenon coined by the SPLC last spring. In an SPLC study published in April, more than 50 percent of 2,000 teachers interviewed reported “an increase in uncivil political discourse.” Teachers mentioned Trump five times more frequently than any of the other candidates combined. Examples respondents provided included chants of “terrorist” and “ISIS” directed at Muslim students and “dirty Mexican” at Hispanic students. At a high school basketball game in Indiana, students chanted “Build a wall” at Latino players on the opposing team.
Comparatively, in SPLC’s November study, 90 percent of 10,000 educators interviewed said the election negatively impacted the school climate. More than 2,500 gave specific examples of hate with roots in Trump’s campaign rhetoric.
The day after the election in a Michigan middle school, video recording captured students shouting “Build a wall” during lunch; in a New Jersey high school, a male student targeted a group of Hispanic girls and told them Trump would deport their families; in a Massachusetts middle school, a white student told a black peer to “Go back to Haiti because this is our country now.”
Teachers reported that they found swastikas, racial slurs and the Trump tagline “Make America Great Again” written on school property.
Maureen Costello, Director of Teaching Tolerance at the SPLC, said no one should be surprised that tensions unfold in our nation’s schools.
“They’re microcosms of our society that reflect all the divisions,” Costello said via email after the election. “They are sites to which most people are assigned, so there isn’t that kind of self-selective sorting that happens in other spheres of life, like churches, where people are sorting themselves into like-minded groups.”
Even an accepting campus such as ours can’t fully shield students from being impacted by what’s being said and done across the country.
Last winter, Head of School Jim Dunaway sent an email to MPH parents urging them to look out for Muslim students. He acknowledged that children can “internalize” disheartening national happenings, including hateful rhetoric.
“When students hear and see things in the media and at school that make them feel unwanted, misunderstood, even shunned or hated, they don’t feel emotionally safe, and it inhibits their ability to learn and flourish, which are primary goals of a school,” Dunaway said in an email interview.
MPH junior Isabella Casella is a first-generation American whose family immigrated from Brazil when she was 5. Though she has felt sheltered from bullying at MPH, she recognizes that hateful words and actions can be detrimental.
“High school is already stressful enough for public school students, who don’t have the support we have at MPH, and then having all this pressure saying that being you is not OK, it’s going to mentally destroy some people,” Casella said.
Though time has passed since Trump’s campaign and his stance on some of his most potent promises seems to have softened, Costello said she fears his words will persist.
“Words linger in people’s memories, and the beliefs that fuel these behaviors won’t go away just because the election is over,” she said. “We all remember the unkind and mean things others say to us. If children and youth believe that immigrants are bad, including those in their own classes, I don’t see that belief disappearing.”
Despite the overwhelming divisions we face, Americans must do all we can to heal our country. Costello stressed the importance of schools “stopping cold” hateful interactions. She urged teachers to listen to the voices of students of color and make them feel valued at school. She calls on students to ally themselves with targeted peers. Even the simple gesture of joining someone at lunch can make a difference.
Dunaway said he believes that the key to change lies in younger generations.
“I believe our children can rise above such nastiness and build a better future than we are offering them,” he said.
Regardless of race, religion or gender, today’s students are builders of a better future. We possess the capacity to spread acceptance rather than resentment.
Our country must not fall to such a low standard that we allow entire groups of people, especially children, to be attacked. That’s not America. Let’s create an environment in which 21-year-old Farah will never again worry that her younger siblings won’t return from school one day.
Let’s make America America again.