Opinion

Renée Graham

‘Donald Trump’ is now an epithet

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

Written by Oscar Hammerstein II for “South Pacific,” a hit Broadway musical, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” speaks of how prejudice is passed within families from one generation to the next. Yet when it comes to school kids these days, it’s the president who may be having just as much of a deleterious influence.

“Donald Trump” is now an epithet.

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In schools across the country, the president’s name has become shorthand for racist and anti-Semitic invective targeting students in hallways, classrooms, and playgrounds. Using reports compiled by the Document Hate project, a hate-crimes database established by ProPublica, BuzzFeed News conducted the first nationwide analysis of 149 bullying incidents that evoked Trump’s name or comments between October 2016 and May 2017. Its reporters then followed up on 54 cases through news reports, interviews, and public statements from school officials.

As hate crimes, including several murders, have swelled since last year’s election, so too have instances of students echoing rhetoric straight from the president’s mouth and tweets. At an Albuquerque elementary school playground, third-graders circled a boy and repeatedly yelled “Trump!” On a San Antonio, Texas, school bus, a Filipino student was told, “You are going to be deported.” In Louisville, Ky., a third grader chased a Latina girl around a classroom shouting, “Build that wall!” After a high school football game in Jacksonville, Fla., white students chanted “Donald Trump!” at black students from an opposing school.

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“This is my 21st year in education and I’ve never seen a situation like this before,” Brent Emmons, principal of Hood River Middle School, in Oregon, told Buzzfeed News. “It’s a delicate tightrope to walk. It’s not my role to tell people how to think about political policies, but it is my role to make sure every kid feels safe at the school.”

By now, most recognize that Trump’s idea of civil discourse consists of name-calling, nonsensical rants, and lies. Of course, this is the same Trump first inflicted on us more than 30 years ago, except now that he’s the president he’s impossible to ignore — and it’s all being absorbed and echoed by this nation’s children. We used to tell alienated or bullied kids, “It gets better.” Yet what does that mean when the president is a bully? What message do children derive from the fact that Trump denigrated immigrants, criminalized a religion he doesn’t understand, and endorsed nonconsensual sexual contact with women, and still became the holder of this nation’s highest office?

This is why it’s always irking when someone claims that it’s old people who sustain racism, and that their eventual demise will magically wash us clean. If we as a society could age out of our prejudices, we wouldn’t continue to wage variations of the same battles that have dogged us since this nation’s founding. Bigotry is carefully taught, a terrible legacy passed from one generation to the next, and the president promulgates it.

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Without question, Trump’s proposals threaten to disrupt progress, endanger lives, and undermine the Constitution. For better or worse, all presidents leave a mark on history; Trump is already leaving scars that will take decades to erase. Future presidents and legislators can reverse Trump’s policies, but eradicating the intolerance he is causing to metastasize won’t be as easy. His corrosive words are providing the wrong lesson for young people, who may someday carry these attitudes from school hallways and playgrounds to ballot boxes and positions of power.

As James Baldwin once said, “These are all our children. We will profit by, or pay for, whatever they become.”

Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham
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