The Fight Against Rising Hatred and Bigotry Must Begin with Teachers and Students

  • by:
    • Jonathan Greenblatt, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League
  • August 28, 2018
    This article originally appeared in

Last summer, as most teachers were still preparing their classrooms for students, the largest and most violent gathering of white supremacists in decades took place. Teachers were left wondering how they should discuss this horrific event with students and how students would react. For those teaching early grade students, many questioned whether they should have the conversation at all, and, if so, what kind of information was appropriate. 

The bigotry that was on display in Charlottesville, unfortunately, is part of a broader rise in hate and anti-Semitic incidents. Last year, there was a 57 percent surge in anti-Semitism. This was mostly due to a massive increase in anti-Semitic incidents targeting students across the country, led by an astounding 94 percent rise at K-12 schools and an 89 percent gain on college campuses. Incidents at schools have nearly doubled two years in a row. 

Why is this happening? The rise in activities from hate groups and white supremacists in the past few years has coincided with the increasingly divisive nature of our national discourse. They have tried — and in some cases succeeded — to take advantage of the extreme partisanship to spread their extreme views in all manner of ways. They have exploited the immigration issue, falsely equated the removal of Confederate monuments to erasing history in general, and likened their violations of term agreements on social media to censorship of “all conservatives.”

Racists are targeting the next generation

College campuses have become a priority target for them. Many of the alt-right groups see value in recruiting a new generation that can carry the movement into the future. They are using “old school” tactics like flyers they post on campuses, as well as basic technology to reach students. Some have built websites to promote groups called “White Student Union” that are anonymous and made to seem as though it’s a group on campus. Others have hacked into internet networks to change the title to a hateful message so everyone sees it come up as a wifi option on campus.

As hateful speech becomes more common, more children are parroting what they hear. In a Michigan middle school, students chanted  “build a wall” in the school cafeteria. In another incident in Los Angeles, high school kids yelled “go back to the oven” to a classmate they knew was Jewish.

We have been helping schools fight hate and bias since the 1950s. There has been a significant rise in demand for our resources — both 911 (reactive) and 411 (proactive) — over the past year. We have worked with thousands of K–12 educators to teach them anti-bias concepts and empower students to challenge bias and identity-based bullying. Through them, we have reached more than 1.2 million students

Our goal is to build understanding and appreciation for people with different backgrounds. Our curriculum focuses on the importance and dimensions of identity and cultural identity, developing the capacity to recognize bias, and learning ways to challenge bias when faced with it. 

For example, in elementary schools, teachers can use children’s literature to introduce their students to people who are different than they are, build empathy, and help them learn about differences. In high schools, teachers can talk with students about how to stand up for classmates when they see someone being teased, harassed or bullied because of some part of their identity. Colleges can organize workshops for students on intervention strategies to counter bias when faced with it, addressing slights or insults, and understanding power and privilege.

Schools should be places for learning and growing — not for bias-based bullying, close-minded racism and hate-filled rhetoric. 

We can't be silent in the face of bigotry

Since their rally in Charlottesville last year, white supremacists have accelerated their efforts to target colleges and universities to recruit young people to support their bigoted worldview. Campus propaganda almost doubled from the 2016-2017 school year to the 2017-2018 school year, rising just from 164 incidents to 313. Those are only incidents we have counted and confirmed; there may be more. 

This is concerning and we can’t stand idly by or our nation will be worse off for the next generation. We need to continue to provide more anti-bias education to more schools. If we do, we will have more upstanding students.

Given the violence we’ve seen over the past few years targeting people because of who they are, as well as the discussions I’ve had with community leaders, I believe there’s a real appetite for having more conversations about how to reduce bias and bigotry. School and community leaders should provide space and support for them. If we encourage children to start challenging bias in themselves and others, we can build a better, more inclusive and equitable world.