I read Dylan Roof's racist manifesto online, eyes puffy from grieving for the families preparing to bury their dead. It had been a week since the country learned of the massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, that claimed the lives of nine innocents. I closed my laptop to quiet Roof's words in my head. At the age of 21, his rhetoric echoed that of an uneducated white supremacist born in the early 1900s.
Where was he learning this?
We hoped racial bias and bigotry would die out with future, more enlightened generations. But time hasn't rendered racism extinct. It's just been tucked away for the sake of its survival.
And it has survived.
Roof is the most recent, most extreme and most troubling example of racist youth. He's responsible for one of the most heinous acts of racially motivated terror the U.S. has seen in decades. Prior to shooting nine people at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, N.C., (among them, Clementa Pinckney, a state senator and pastor of the church), Roof proclaimed he was there "to kill black people." He is being investigated by the Department of Justice as a domestic terrorist.
Roof may be the worst-case scenario, but in recent months, young people across the country have made headlines for their usage of racist language and hate-filled symbolism.
In the month of March, members of University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were captured on tape singing a racist chant: "There will never be a ni**er at SAE...you can hang him from a tree, but he'll never sign with me, there will never be a ni**er at SAE."
At the University of Maryland, a student sent an email to his Kappa Sigma fraternity brothers about a party. In it, he wrote "Don't invite any n****r gals or curry monsters or slanted eye chinks, unless they're hot".
A group of three Bucknell University students took to the airwaves of their campus radio station to make racist comments about blacks. Among their racial slurs, one of the students said, "lynch 'em".
In the month of April, a student at University of South Carolina was suspended after a video of her writing hate speech on a white board went viral.
A Duke University student admitted to hanging a noose from a tree weeks after a racially charged incident took place on campus.
Also in the noose category, a student in Greenville, South Carolina, was found to be texting photos of black boys with nooses drawn around their necks to his fellow students at Christ Church high school.
In May, high school students in Colorado took heat when a photo of them posing with the Confederate Flag set the Internet ablaze. The Charleston shootings have re-ignited the debate around the Confederate Flag and its symbolism.
The swift action taken by the Universities and learning institutions where these incidents took place must be acknowledged. Most of these students were suspended, if not expelled. But these are only a few examples. That our young people are promoting separatism and recycling old, racist jargon should serve as wake up call. And no, it can't be summed up to coincidence or "kids being kids."
What do we do, as American citizens? I'll offer up a few ideas only because I want to contribute to the collective sharing of solutions.
We could begin tracking and monitoring the websites of organizations advocating hate. Roof had ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, one of the oldest and largest white supremacist organizations in the country. Tracking these groups would be tough because hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Still, domestic terrorist groups should be monitored in the same way we attempt to monitor outside terrorist groups.
It may be time to re-evaluate the curriculum in our schools so that our youth are educated on race relations. Race Relations 101, if you will. It should be mandatory that students learn the horrors of slavery (not the slavery-existed-long-long-ago-but-the-civil-rights-movement-and-MLK-ended-it version) so they understand the meaning behind racist symbolism and hate speech. Naturally, this can't and shouldn't fall on the shoulders our educators. While many unsung educators have made race relations a part of their curriculum, racial tolerance and understanding is taught in the home.
As adults and parents, maybe we should look at ourselves -- do we champion diversity? How diverse are our friendships? Are we actively building relationships with those who don't look like us, or who have experiences that differ from our own? Do we welcome parents and children of other races into our homes and social circles? Are we making sure our children have diverse experiences in their friendships? Are we showing our children how it's done?
Lastly, as citizens, we should discuss race in an honest and respectful way. We should talk about that "our flag", "take back our country" terminology. We should talk about the Confederate battle flag. We should talk about the portrayals of minorities in mass media and why images make meaning. We should talk about the consequences when banks discriminate against people of color. We should talk about redlining. We should talk about the Voting Rights Act and its significance. We should talk about racist donors contributing to the campaigns of certain politicians and the effect it has -- and has had -- on black people. We should talk about police brutality in neighborhoods of color and our criminal justice system. We should talk about the mass incarceration of black men.
We'd love it if race didn't matter, wouldn't we? But the cat's out of the bag. Race matters.
I remain optimistic when it comes to America's youth. I've mentored them, I've coached them and I believe in them. Collectively, we must re-examine ourselves in order for our future leaders to lead and thrive. Race is a social constrict. As the racial makeup of our country becomes more diverse, we must encourage unity. And we must admit, if the disease of racism finds a home in the hearts and minds of our children, it's because we allowed the wrong people to do the teaching.