How Americans are handling post-election hate

Following Donald Trump's election, a spate of disturbing incidents of schoolyard and workplace harassment is raising difficult questions about how to address a spike in incivility. 

Mairah Teli/Facebook
Gwinnett County, Ga. high school teacher Mairah Teli posted on Facebook a letter given to her by one of her students.

An Atlanta nightclub owner this week called the CBS hip-hop station V-103 “racist” after its hosts talked about president-elect Donald Trump in unflattering ways. On his Facebook post, Scott Strumlauf added: “You’re owed nothing!!!! Trump spoke the truth. It may hurt, but too bad.”

His comments triggered a boycott effort against the popular Tongue and Groove nightclub. Then, the owner walked back his words and apologized for “referring to [V-103] in that manner and anyone I may have offended.” Club management added: “While inexcusable, these comments are a direct reflection of the frustration many of us feel in the wake of the presidential election.”

The election of Donald Trump has uncorked a torrent of rancor, threats, harassment, and restive street protests across the US. The election has left companies, universities, and school systems also scrambling to address what one educator called a “hostile environment” that has engulfed the nation.

The ensuing barrage of disturbing incidents of schoolyard and workplace harassment is raising difficult questions about how to address an incivility spike that's showing up in how Americans speak to each other, and about each other.

To be sure, American discourse had been coarsening before this election. An Allegheny College/Zogby survey found that the number of Americans who disapprove of political comments about other people’s race or ethnicity declined by 20 percentage points since 2010, from 89 to 69 percent. And six years ago, 86 percent of people found it unacceptable to shout over a debate opponent; in October, that number stood at 65 percent.

But this election has put the trend on full display.

“We can all point to incidents in campaigns across history, but I think this one probably does represent a new place in terms of incivility," James Mullen, president of Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa., told the Associated Press. "What worries me the most is we're becoming almost numb.”

Struggling to cope

Among the examples:

• This week, GrubHub founder and CEO Matthew Maloney was pilloried after he sent an email to employees after the election, in which he said:

While demeaning, insulting and ridiculing minorities, immigrants and the physically/mentally disabled worked for Mr. Trump, I want to be clear that this behavior - and these views, have no place at Grubhub. Had he worked here, many of his comments would have resulted in his immediate termination...

Further I absolutely reject the nationalist, anti-immigrant and hateful politics of Donald Trump and will work to shield our community from this movement as best as I can. As we all try to understand what this vote means to us, I want to affirm to anyone on our team that is scared or feels personally exposed, that I and everyone else here at Grubhub will fight for your dignity and your right to make a better life for yourself and your family here in the United States. 

If you do not agree with this statement then please reply to this email with your resignation because you have no place here. We do not tolerate hateful attitudes on our team..."

Some observers read that as threatening the job of any GrubHub employees who voted for Trump. 

Mr. Maloney backtracked, saying his company “welcomes and accepts employees with all political beliefs, no matter who they voted for.” His point, Maloney said, was to remind employees that harassing or intimidating behavior would not be accepted.

• At the University of Pennsylvania (where Trump graduated in 1968), students and staff are in an uproar after black freshmen students were added to a GroupMe group titled “[N-word] Lynching.” That came after a group of students at a local bar began chanting, “Build that wall!”

“If this is the start, these chants and [social media] messages, the next four years will be a continued struggle and continued other-ing of a part of the Penn community that’s already marginalized,” Penn student Maya Arthur said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

• In Cambridge, Mass., a Harvard student overheard a postal worker tell a Hispanic man, “This is Trump land, you ain’t getting your check no more.” The US Postal Service says it’s investigating.

• At Wellesley College, in Wellesley, Mass., dozens of students complained when two male Babson College students rode through campus in a pickup truck with a Trump flag, shouting bigoted comments at women. The university is considering its options for how to deal with the incident. The Babson students were promptly kicked out of their fraternity.

“This community’s well-being — and all that word encompasses — is foremost on my mind right now,” Wellesley President Paula Johnson said in a statement. Wellesley College is Hillary Clinton's alma mater. 

• And in Dekalb County, Ga., a teacher was suspended after going on a pro-Trump rant that allegedly disparaged immigrants. Dekalb’s immigrant population rose 153 percent between 1990 and 2014.

• Anti-Trump forces, too, vented their frustrations with street protests, one of which, in Portland, became bloody Friday night when a protester was grazed by a bullet. On Thursday night, Portland police declared a protest march a riot and arrested dozens who failed to disperse. Some Americans are refusing to concede to Constitutional law, declaring online “#NotMyPresident.”

Coarse discourse

In driving toward electoral victory, Trump often stoked such passions, warning that the looming election was a “war” and that “nothing at all is out of bounds” for Democrats. His style comes at a time when social media has given a new edge to the national debate, making it possible to disparage people with little to no risk. 

"Into that world comes a candidate who uses Twitter as a primary mode of communication," Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who studies political communication, told the AP. "He lives in a world in which this stuff is being trafficked back and forth, and that normalizes this kind of discourse for you as a candidate."

That discourse was also manifest in classrooms. 

Trump’s candidacy “produced an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom,” the Southern Poverty Law Center found earlier this year. “Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities have been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”

One response is simple, yet difficult.  

A “primary antidote to racial hostility is ongoing speech,” meaning “routinely fostering thoughtful discussion … about the real experiences of other people and the consequences of our claims,” as wrote Mica Pollock, an education professor at the University of California at San Diego, in The Washington Post.

That “is not political correctness [but about] training young people to participate civilly and nonviolently in democracy,” Ms. Pollock, the author of “Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About – and To – Students Every Day.” “It’s about debating complicated issues using evidence. It’s about basic respect.”

In Gwinnett County, Ga., a Muslim high school teacher received a post-election note she believes came from a student. The note, signed “America,” asks her to use her headscarf to hang herself.

Without removing her headscarf, she took time to talk to her class about the garment’s traditions and meaning. “We are living in a time when there is a lot of disagreement, a lot of conflict,” teacher Mairah Teli told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s important to teach them how to [respectfully] disagree.”

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