Racist graffiti in a bathroom at Riverside-Brookfield

School leaders at Riverside-Brookfield High School in Chicago’s near-west suburbs discussed tolerance with students following the discovery of racist graffiti in one of the student bathrooms, according to a report in the school’s student newspaper.


Graffiti in another location (Christopher Brown / Flickr CC)

“The focus this year is increasing our cultural awareness in this building and accepting of others’ beliefs and things like that,” Kenna Howorth in the RB Clarion quoted Dave Mannon, the school’s assistant principal for student affairs, as saying. “We are not going to go down the same road we went down last year. We are absolutely not going to do that. That’s why we’re going to jump out in front of this thing this year and be really vocal and transparent about it.

“It’s one person trying to be a distraction in this building. It’s not the belief, it’s not the thought, of 99.9 percent of the students in this building. It’s not the culture of this building either. We don’t have students that are going to do that.”

Among the ideas that came out during a brainstorming session involving students and administrators were:

  • Lunch meetings with student activity leaders
  • “Hate Has No Home Here” signs
  • Discussing discrimination in student assemblies
  • A film festival or writing week
  • Celebrating International Day of Tolerance on Nov. 16

Ms Howorth’s article raises an interesting question: If less than 1 percent of the students at Riverside-Brookfield are haters, can they be healed? And how would we do that?

Let’s start by considering one of the possible roots of the problem: an identity crisis on the part of the haters. The organization ExitUSA connects about 100 former hate crime offenders. Tim Zaal is one of them.

He mentors “three former skinheads,” he told the online journal Salon. “All are in contact with me on a regular basis,” he was quoted as saying. “It’s integral that they have somebody to identify with, who knows the language, knows the mindset.”

What motivates hate crime offenders?

Members of neo-Nazi hate groups today try to fit in with mainstream society, he says, claiming their hate speech is protected speech under the First Amendment. They often “join the military, grow your hair out, don’t get tattoos, don’t get in trouble with the law, keep your head down, basically,” he said.

But underneath what looks like a normal exterior, they still suffer from that same identity crisis neo-Nazis did in the 1970s: “They’re looking for a sense of identity and purpose and a community. The ideology is secondary,” the journal quoted Christian Picciolini, director of ExitUSA, as saying.

Back at Riverside-Brookfield, the Clarion quoted Mr Mannon as saying, “While we want to provide a voice for everyone and to hear everyone’s thoughts, concerns … there are certain things that we’re just not going to allow, [such as] blatant disrespect for other cultures, traditions, and racism, or hatred.”

Mr Picciolini says compassion and empathy are the keys to recovering from a life of hatred: “The underlying theme that I’ve heard over and over again is that we received compassion from the people that we least deserved it from.”

That is, when haters see they are respected, loved, and not judged by those they perceive as the enemy, “A lot of us, when we get out, we get educated and get our lives together, and we start to give back,” Mr Zaal said.

In the Des Moines Register, one former skinhead advised educators, members of “enemy” groups, and society in general to conquer hate with love in the same way.

Frank Meeink, a skinhead with a swastika tattooed on his body, noticed he started changing in prison when people started showing him empathy.

“Going up and punching a redneck at a rally isn’t fighting racism; that’s just punching a redneck,” the paper quoted him as saying. “I’ve been in rallies with the neo-Nazis marching, and people threw snowballs and bottles at us. I was like, there’s my enemy.

“But when people started to talk to me and they showed empathy, it changed everything.”

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.