A race riot between white and Latino students in a California high school lunchroom serves as a symbol for a new trend among America's youth — anti-immigrant, racist ideology and violence.
It began with a casual insult. A young girl, singing in Spanish as she walked through the lunchroom of her southern California high school, was interrupted by a white boy who yelled at her to shut up, using profanity and a racial slur to boot.
Within seconds, her Latino boyfriend and the white boy were fighting it out. They weren't alone long.
A melée between hundreds of white and Latino students erupted in the lunchroom, ending only when 12 deputy sheriffs and a crowd of school officials intervened. The next day, even with 18 deputies patrolling the campus, two more racial fights broke out.
In the end, 18 students were suspended, eight were facing expulsion, and prosecutors were considering charging five.
The events at Temescal Canyon High School in Lake Elsinore sound like they could have come straight from the most difficult days of the civil rights movement.
In fact they took place this May, and followed an incident at nearby Elsinore High School last fall, when white students marched onto campus carrying an American flag on a pole etched with swastikas. A recent report by OC Human Relations, a regional antiracist group, said neo-Nazi groups are active at both schools.
It's tempting to write off the events in Riverside County as aberrations, freak occurrences that don't reflect any greater reality. Surely, we'd like to think, these are isolated setbacks on our long march toward racial peace.
But we'd be wrong.
In Brooklyn, N.Y., a scathing Justice Department report issued this June found that administrators at Lafayette High School ignored "pervasive" harassment and violence directed at Asian students by blacks and Hispanics over the course of two years.
One Chinese student was nearly strangled to death in a shower; another, in the running for valedictorian, was kicked and beaten unconscious.
In Milwaukee, a 14-year-old white boy was arrested and charged with a hate crime this spring after allegedly sending E-mails to a black teacher at Wisconsin Career Academy threatening to kill her.
In Gloucester, Va., tensions are high after a consultant's report found that parents, students and staff all believed that black students don't feel welcome in Gloucester County's schools — a perception that hasn't been helped by the fact that Gloucester High School's principal is the mother of a well-known neo-Nazi activist, even though she denies sharing his views.
And these kinds of tensions aren't limited to high schools. At Bullock Creek Middle School near Midland, Mich., the American Civil Liberties Union announced an out-of-court settlement in May stemming from a 2003 attack on one of the few black students.
Kyron Tryon, then 14, was kicked, whipped with a belt and harassed by seven white students who reportedly called their assault "the KKK game."
Local county prosecutor Norman Donker told the Detroit Free Press the racial attack was predated by a series of minor "inappropriate" conflicts between the boys involved. "When it first started," he noted, "nobody put a stop to it."
Similar things could be said about most of the other school incidents discussed here. Time and time again, administrators and teachers failed to act on ominous warning signs.
Age of Rage
What's going on with American youth? Why does race hate seem so pervasive among our children some four decades after the civil rights movement?
In this issue, the Intelligence Report takes a broad look at youth hatred — hatred that may never have been more widespread. We examine adult hate groups that are making serious efforts to reach youngsters.
And, in a phenomenon that may be even more worrying, we look at groups and race hate that are appearing without adult help among middle- and high-school-age kids around the country.
"I don't know what's more frightening," says activist Eric Ward, "kids joining organized hate groups, or the way hate is rising up spontaneously among kids who feel it's OK to terrorize and assault people because of their race or religion or sexual orientation."
The reasons for this are not simple. But there are important clues.
Perhaps the single most important factor is the large number of rapid social changes occurring in our society. Immigration, demographic shifts and huge changes in the economy can be extremely threatening, particularly to kids raised in socially homogeneous settings.
According to California's North County Times, Temescal Canyon High School, for instance, lost 10% of its white population in the last four years — a period during which the school's Latino population increased by 15%.
That there is an underlying problem seems indisputable. "Racism is alive and well and still rears its ugly head," is the way that Joyce Tryon, mother of Kyron, put it to the Detroit Free Press. "What happened to my son is proof of that."