I teach in a public high school in Los Angeles that is more than 80 percent non-white, and shortly after the presidential election some white supremacist teenagers made their presence known on campus.
The day after the election, at an impromptu protest in which hundreds of students walked out of class, a white student ran around shouting, “No more Mexicans! No more Mexicans!”
Two days after the election, an African American female basketball player found the words, “The KKK is going to get you,” marked on her locker.
A few days later, a student walked into his classroom and shouted “White Power.” I am told he was removed from school, not because of what he said but because he had threatened to kill his mother.
I was raised in the 1950’s and 1960’s in an Orthodox Jewish family in Houston, Texas and was well aware of prejudice.
One of my earliest memories is being pulled away from a water fountain from which I was about to drink and being held over a taller, refrigerated water cooler by a white woman who I didn’t know. She said, “You can’t drink from that fountain. It’s for colored.”
I attended public schools and these things happened:
My fifth-grade teacher read us Little Black Sambo, narrating the story in a demeaning accent.
My eighth-grade music teacher went on an anti-JFK speech. The next day, President Kennedy was assassinated. She never apologized or talked politics to us again.
My tenth-grade history teacher used the word “ne-gra”.
My eleventh-grade history teacher quoted from J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit and warned us that communists and liberals were planning to lead the country into totalitarianism.
One of the smartest and most popular girls at my high school invited a bunch of friends to her house on a Sunday afternoon where her father attempted to recruit us into The John Birch Society.
My varsity basketball coach, preparing us for a game against the all-black, reigning state champion Wheatley Wildcats, drew a picture of a knee on the chalkboard and said that blacks have an extra muscle behind their knees which allowed them to jump five or six inches higher than us white guys. So, we’d better block them off the backboards or they’d run us off the court. They did.
That March, when those same Wheatley Wildcats traveled to Austin to defend their state championship, my buddy and I bought extra tickets and scalped them in front of the gymnasium before the final game.
A good old boy asked me, “How much?”
I said, “Five dollars.”
“But tickets only cost two dollars,” he said.
“But the game’s sold out and tipoff’s in ten minutes,” I said.
“Well,” he thought it over. “I wouldn‘t want to Jew you.”
After graduating from the University of Texas—Austin, I lived in New York City for four years and since 1979, I’ve lived in LA.
And I don’t remember hearing such comments or being confronted with such in-your-face bigotry since leaving Texas.
Days after the election, I signed in, in the main office and was walking alongside a colleague on our way to first period when she asked me if I’d heard that morning’s NPR interview with Trump backer, Joel Pollak.
I said I had, and we agreed his take on Breitbart News and ours were worlds apart.
And then she said, “And he’s a Zionist!”
I was stunned by the hate, which accompanied her words.
A moment later she was gone, headed toward her classroom.
I stood there, feeling a sense of shock and rage.
The following day at a lunch time going-away party for a colleague, I asked if I could have a word with her. She agreed.
I told her that I was taken aback by the disgust in her tone when she’d used the word “Zionist.”
I said, “I understand that some equate Zionism with the Israeli settlers’ movement to expand Israel. But do you really believe Israel doesn’t have a right to exist? I mean in light of the Holocaust, you don’t think Jews have a right to their own state? Even if there’s a two-state solution?”
“Well, I’ve done a lot of research on the subject,” she said. And she went on to say that Israel is another example of European colonialism. “I’m sorry if I upset you.”
And she was gone.
Much later, I felt like asking her why she doesn’t give her million-dollar home to Native Americans since California is another example of European colonialism.
But I don’t think that fast on my feet.
What I do think, and what stuns me, is that on this quiet, apolitical campus on the fashionable Westside of LA where I’ve taught for the past nine years there is suddenly bigotry to the right of me. And bigotry to the left of me.
These days I’m experiencing a déjà vu like the cruelty I witnessed in my youth in one of the reddest states; it’s seeping into even the bluest corners of my adopted blue state.
Photo credit: Getty Images