Alleged racist incidents at Aliso Niguel High School are a reflection of nationwide polarization and division
It was supposed to be just a football game between Aliso Niguel and Santa Ana high schools, but turned controversial with allegations of racism and politicizing a sporting event.
Tensions erupted on campus and spread to social media over the weekend after Santa Ana High School’s principal Jeff Bishop said he and his students — overwhelmingly Latino and immigrant — were greeted with posters such as “Trump 2020,” “We’re going to Trump you,” “We love White,” and chants of “USA! USA!” when Aliso Niguel scored.
Santa Ana High School is 99 percent Hispanic while Aliso Niguel is about 58 percent Caucasian.
Experts who study hate incidents and bullying on school campuses say what happened at Aliso Viejo is a snapshot reflecting a nation that has been swimming in divisive rhetoric and polarization since the 2016 presidential election. Hate crimes and hate incidents — be it against Latinos, immigrants, Muslims Americans, Jews, Asian Americans, members of the LGBT community or African Americans — have been steadily increasing over the last two years.
After the game, Bishop made a post on Facebook explaining why this treatment of his students was unacceptable.
“You’re not playing an international team,” Bishop wrote. “My students are scholars, dreamers, American citizens. They are good kids. (Aliso Niguel) was not playing against Germany or Mexico. They were playing my kids, 22 minutes down the freeway.
“Really, you don’t understand why this was bad? As a white man, and homeowner in Aliso Viejo, I was embarrassed!”
Some students also told Bishop they saw a “Build the Wall” poster, but that has yet to be confirmed.
Aliso Niguel High School’s principal, Deni Christensen, issued a lengthy statement Monday Sept. 10, saying the activities at the football game was intended to be a “patriotic celebration” before Sept. 11, which is celebrated as Patriot Day.
She said administrators removed the political signs. Christensen also clarified that the “We love White” sign was part of a trio. The other two were “We love Red” and “We love Blue.”
Also, when Bishop told her he would leave with his students if the crowd didn’t stop its “USA!” chants, Christensen said the students were told stop the chanting, and they did.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Council for American Islamic Relations (CAIR) have both reported large increases in incidents where Jewish and Muslim students are being bullied and harassed because of their faiths.
The ADL reported recently that anti-Semitic incidents on school campuses nationwide increased by 94 percent in 2017 compared to 2016.
“No one should be surprised hearing this rhetoric from teens,” said Rabbi Peter Levi, regional director of the ADL’s Orange County/Long Beach chapter. “What we are seeing here in Orange County is that a lot of the bigotry hides behind an anti-immigrant stance.”
Levi said just two weeks ago, his organization received reports of swastikas at a middle school in South Orange County. A month ago, he said, white supremacist recruiting posters were found on Saddleback College’s campus.
Levi said Aliso Niguel’s administrators should call out the incidents for what they were.
“Even if the posters were meant to be patriotic, when you put up a poster that says ‘We love White’ when a football team that is not predominantly white is visiting, that’s insensitive at best and bigoted at worst,” he said.
Public schools that encounter this type of behavior must send a clear message to students and the community that campuses are safe and inclusive spaces for all students, Levi said.
“This is not about politics, the immigration policy or the president,” he said. “This is about kids who go to school to learn and about embracing the message that everyone belongs there.”
Orange County Human Relations has already reached out to both Santa Ana High and Aliso Niguel High to help facilitate positive conversations and find a way to move forward, said Alison Edwards, executive director.
“This is a great opportunity for our leaders and school officials to come together and show that we an have these challenging conversations in Orange County, and do it well,” she said.
Social media is not the best place for any meaningful conversation to take place, Edwards said.
“When it’s face to face, you understand the nuances of communication,” she said. “Social media has fewer opportunities to create empathy or a deeper understanding of the people involved.”