In the wake of Donald Trump’s surprise presidential win, and a related spike in hate crimes and bigoted rhetoric – including an alarming amount at schools – people from all walks of life are fearful of what the coming months and years will bring.
One group documenting this distressing climate is the Southern Poverty Law Center. Before the election, Rolling Stone chatted with Maureen Costello, head of the SPLC’s Teaching Tolerance program, about how Trump’s rhetoric was affecting students, teachers and parents. Among other things, she said at the time that a survey by the program, released in April of last year, found that the election had changed the nature of bullying in schools, with taunts aimed especially at Muslim, Latino, immigrant and other vulnerable children, and that even Trump’s name was being used as a way of insulting peers.
We recently checked back in with Costello to learn about the program’s post-election survey – which she says garnered some 12,000 results, compared to 2,000 previously – and how it seems young people and the adults who care for them are holding up now that Trump is president-elect.
What did you find in your new survey?
The report painted a picture of schools in turmoil. It’s almost hard to describe how bad it was. Fears of families being split – some of them rational fears, because the children knew that they or their family members were undocumented, some of the fears not necessarily rational. The second impact we noticed was the taunting that was happening at schools. A lot of harassment of immigrant kids, of LGBT kids, of Muslims. Kids saying things like, “When are you going to pack your bags? When are you going to be deported?”
How are kids being affected by the general climate of bigotry in the U.S. right now?
We’ve really lost ground this year in the fight against bigotry. Another thing we’re looking at is that this is happening at the same time as the trial of Dylann Roof [who was recently sentenced to death for killing nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015]. He is a self-described white supremacist. And he became one online. How did he become one? He googled “black on white crime” and came up with a lot of fake information. It used to be that recruitment for this sort of thing happened face-to-face, and was very marginalized, but now a lot of it is happening online. So now we’re going to be doing a project on digital literacy. The motivating ideology behind a lot of these groups is that someone else’s gain is at my expense. We’ve reverted to a very old human type, which is “us against them.”
How does fake news play into this?
Many people are studying it, including my colleagues at the Intelligence Project [the arm of the SPLC that monitors hate group activity]. But how it works is: You read something on Twitter that alleges that there’s this terrible epidemic of black on white crime, and then you go to look it up, and all the first hits you get are these fake news sites confirming the search term you were looking for. One of which [a fake news article about black on white crime] was even retweeted by Trump himself. And if the president-elect can’t tell the difference, how do we expect a 16-year-old to do so? We have a real digital literacy gap, and digital literacy is something everyone in the American public needs, but especially young people. Fake news is also often entertaining, and titillating, and people share it, which increases its reach and influence. It’s a completely amoral universe out there, online. The Oxford English Dictionary named “post-truth” the Word of the Year for 2016.
The SPLC has emerged in these post-election months as a trusted source of information and one of the groups people see as a bulwark against what might be to come. For instance, the SPLC is responsible for the widely cited statistic about there having been 700 incidents of hate or bias in the week after the election.
And we’re certainly not the only ones. The 700 number was from the first week, and our second report [from the month after the election] shows over 1,000 incidents. Not all of these would qualify as hate crimes. For instance, a swastika drawn on a wall in a public restroom probably would not – but if you draw a swastika on someone’s house, it’s certainly not a love note – which is why we call them incidents. But yes, there’s certainly been a sense from people that “we want to support you because you’re in this fight.”
Forty percent of those reports took place in school settings. Separately, from our survey mailed to teachers, we had 3,000 descriptions of incidents at schools, including harassment, bias, graffiti.
What kind of message does Trump’s win send to kids?
It depends on the kid. If you’re an immigrant kid, the message is: This country doesn’t want us. If you’re not in that group, and you don’t feel threatened because you have a lack of exposure to kids that are, the message is that the old order has changed. There are kids telling teachers it’s a “new country,” in which women don’t have rights, Muslims and immigrants are going to be sent out of the country, and you can say whatever you want. After the election, I got the sense from teachers that some students were sort of laughing at them, saying, “You’re trying to tell me the world is one way, but it’s really another way.” I worry about the message being sent to students. This campaign really sent a message that it’s not politics as usual. For instance, you might have a teacher say that they reassure kids by telling them that the government has checks and balances. And now they’re saying, “I don’t know if checks and balances are going to work this time.”
What about the message he’s sending by tweeting things like, “Happy New Year to all, including my many enemies and those who have fought me and lost so badly they don’t know what to do. Love!”
I think the best answer came from Kid President [the popular Twitter account representing a 12-year-old as president]: “You could’ve just said ‘Happy New Year.'” It sends a message that winning is everything; [it takes] every definition of sportsmanship and reverses it. If [Trump’s behavior is] not challenged, it normalizes it. And the only way to counter this kind of thing is for adults to constantly challenge it. It will require energy and vigilance. We’re never going to be able to say, “Ah, let that one go.” It’s really important to encourage critical thinking. Ask a lot of questions. Get the kids to think about what is going on.
Where do you go from here?
Well, first is to answer the question “What do people need?” How do we help schools maintain a positive climate when the general climate is not good? Teachers want facts. Which is tough at the moment, because [Trump-era] policies [affecting vulnerable students] haven’t been written yet. Educators are often one of the first institutions in the community who can help these families. And the kids might be the only ones in the family who speak English.
[The SPLC] will be rolling out our fake news digital literacy program and getting information to support educators to protect immigrant families. We’re the leader in our field for combating bias in schools. If we don’t have the resource ourselves, we’re going to turn to other organizations for that help. For instance, we might turn to GLSEN [the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network] for help in combating anti-LGBTQ bias. You’re going to see a lot more coalition work in the future.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.