The Divide: Is America turning back the clock on human rights and dignity and respect for all people?

The Divide: Is America turning back the clock on human rights and dignity and respect for all people?

As many people commented during the last presidential election season, and continue to note today, dignity for all people, whether they be LGBTQI, people of color, persons with a disability and/or members of certain religious affiliations seems to be on the wane and hate speech and vitriol seems to be on the rise. The divide between treating people with respect and acceptance for who they are and denigrating them for being “not like us” is growing wider and more vehement than it has been in generations.

The actions of a certain presidential candidate to disparage women, publicly humiliate his primary opponents, mock a reporter who had a disabling condition, and encourage supporters to beat up on people who opposed him has led to an outward rise in actions related to racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, homophobia, and other culturally destructive behaviors. Most likely these feelings were simmering just below the surface during President Obama’s eight years in office, but now their ugly heads have come up for air and implicit biases have become explicit biases.

Three recent examples of these offensive ‘isms’ and phobias becoming blatantly public are: the hateful flyers discovered on car windshields in Saratoga Springs; a gay black high school senior in the Buffalo public school system being denied approval to create a Gay-Straight Alliance in McKinley High School; and black female students at the Mystic Valley Regional Charter School, Malden, Massachusetts, facing detention and suspension for wearing their hair in braids.

In Saratoga Springs, flyers promoting a white supremacist group were found on parked cars. In its report on this incident, WAMC radio quoted the Southern Poverty Law Center referring to the language on the flyers as “consistent with the Ku Klux Klan.” Ryan Lenz of the Southern Poverty law Center told WAMC that “the ideologies of intolerance [are becoming] more and more mainstream” and “the Klan is trying to bank on that reality…in hopes that it can once again rise to its former prominence.”

The flyers were not the first instance of hate speech in Saratoga since last year’s presidential election.  Swastikas have been found on city property and in both the high school and middle school. And, just a short time ago, a small number of students in the high school were following something known as the Fourth Reich, a Neo-Nazi group.

In response to these acts of hate, the Saratoga Springs city council passed a resolution taking a stand against acts that are against a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, etc. And, on Monday, May 22 at 7:30 pm at City Hall, a town hall meeting will be held to discuss the flyers and the other instances of hate speech in Saratoga Springs.

In Buffalo, the actions of a high school principal blocking Byshop Elliott’s attempts to form a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) have led Mr. Elliott to sue McKinley High School and the Buffalo public school district. The New York Civil Liberties Union (disclosure: I am a Board member of the Capital Region Chapter of the NYCLU) is representing Mr. Elliott and filed the lawsuit last week in federal court. However, the failure to allow the creation of the GSA is not the only discriminatory action taken by the principal of McKinley H.S. The lawsuit alleges other discriminatory actions against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students, such as: same-sex dates are not allowed at the prom; couples tickets are reserved only for opposite-sex couples; and same-sex couples have been separated when dancing together at school dances.  

In my opinion, the denial of allowing a GSA club to be created is in conflict with New York State Education Law. On September 13, 2010, the Dignity for All Students Act (The Dignity Act) was signed into law.  It took effect on July 13, 2013 so as to give school districts time to implement the Act’s directives. These included: instruction in civility and citizenship (Trump needs to take this course); concepts of tolerance; and sensitivity in relations to people, including different races, sexual orientation, gender identity, and sexes. The Dignity Act requires Boards of Education to include language addressing the act in their codes of conduct.

The requirement of placing the language of The Dignity Act directly into a school district’s code of conduct raises the question: Why has the Buffalo public school district failed to intervene and direct Principal Boling-Barton to allow the formation of the GSA? It’s not as if GSA clubs are new to Buffalo. According to the Buffalo News, at least three other public high schools in Buffalo and several Buffalo charters have GSA clubs. So, why is McKinley High School and the Buffalo public school district refusing to follow NYS Education Law and not discriminate on the basis of race and sexual orientation?              

Public schools are not alone in this disturbing trend of racism and intolerance in our schools. The Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Malden, Mass. has made the news for detentions and suspensions of girls of color for wearing their hair in braids. The school’s administration says the braids are in violation of the dress code. In a statement defending its stance on imposing detention, the administration said, “…that many students go on to attend top colleges and universities.”  Okay. That explains it – braids and hair extensions would keep black girl students from being accepted to college, thus hurting the academic standing of the school. I should have known, silly me.

The statement goes on, “Our policy on hair…is consistent with, and a part of, the educational environment that we believe is so important to our students’ success.” Funny thing, though, the twins who were the subject of the Boston Globe article are academically accomplished, with GPA’s of 3.79 and 3.30. I guess, if the young ladies didn’t have braids, they would have 4.0’s. Who knew?

These few samples of intolerance, racism, homophobia, and the promotion of white supremacy do support the feeling that many of us have that America is turning back the clock on human rights and dignity. The hateful rhetoric that was emanating from last year’s presidential campaign, and continues to this day through executive branch tweets and policies, has led to a rise in intolerance and racism in America. We must hope that the feelings expressed by Saratoga Springs Mayor Joanne Yespen, when she was asked about the hateful flyers, that we “are better than that” and “that we are a welcoming and inclusive community” will again guide America’s path forward. After all, we are one nation and we cannot afford to fall back to the “good old days” of fear, bigotry, and intolerance of anyone who is “not like us.”  

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