Teenagers and the New Taboos of Race


When a handful of white Short Pump Middle School football players in Henrico County engaged in a racial bullying — simulating anal rape upon black peers in the locker room and posting video on social media — the community understandably erupted in outrage. The behavior was reprehensible. It had to be chastised.

It’s not clear from media reports what punishment, if any, the perpetrators of the acts themselves have suffered. As minors, the boys are entitled to privacy protections. But let’s make one thing clear: The bullies were responsible for the actions, and they are the ones who should be punished for their behavior, not their teammates.

But the Henrico County Public School system was not content to merely punish the offenders. School authorities canceled the rest of the team’s season, thus affecting kids who did not participate in the bullying. Instead of attending practice the team assembled for mandatory discussions on racial tolerance and ethics. Also, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one football coach is said to no longer work for the county. The reason for his departure is unclear, although we are probably safe in assuming that it was related to the bullying incident.

It’s one thing to punish individuals who deserve it. It’s another thing to punish the collective (the football team), sweeping innocents into the net. Now Henrico schools are using the episode as an excuse to bureaucratize the enforcement of the dogma of the day on matters of race.

The T-D reports today that Henrico schools are creating a new office of equity and diversity, and in January will hire a director to oversee it. The goal of the office will be to implement short- and long-term cultural diversity plans. Also, the schools are planning an equity and diversity task force made up of students, parents, community members, and district staff members.

Super. Now the higher-ed practice of creating diversity bureaucracies is spreading to K-12 school systems. That’s worked out so well for colleges — they’re such beacons of ethnic tranquility these days — that I’m sure it will turn out just dandy for Henrico, too. Not.

This is just a suspicion, and I hope I’m proven wrong as Henrico rolls out its new programs. But talk of racial tolerance (a good thing) is all too often accompanied by talk of “white privilege” and guilt-tripping of white students (a bad thing). In the current environment, no one can veer from the party line without being judged a racist, so people shut up. And keep their opinions to themselves. And vote for Donald Trump.

One last thought: The United States is undergoing a redefinition of taboos. For many generations, the use of profanity was banned from the public domain. Beginning in the 1960s, it became hip to transgress against bourgeois norms of propriety. A half century later, the norms against profanity have been obliterated. Vulgar language is ubiquitous in our society today. But the old taboos have been replaced by new taboos, largely based on ethnic, gender and sexual identity. Most famously, the “N word” has replaced the “F word” as something that simply cannot be uttered publicly. (To prevent any misunderstanding, I’m OK with the taboo against the “N word.”)

When I was a teenager, it was cool and edgy to use profanity. Kids used the transgressive language of the day as a form of self-assertion, a way to cultivate an air of rebelliousness. Now, it seems, nobody outside of Sunday school cares much about profanity. So how does a teenage kid, especially a white teenage kid, stay edgy and rebellious? By transgressing the new taboos…. which these days involve racial and sexual identity.

I don’t know what drove those white middle-school football players to bully their black teammates the way they did. But I would caution against jumping to the conclusion that their parents didn’t raise them right. The kids may be acutely aware what mainstream American society considers right and wrong in matters of race — and they may be transgressing the new taboos precisely because they are taboo.

I am not making an academic distinction here. If you want to prevent a behavior (in this case racial bullying), then you need to understand the origins of that behavior. And, until I see evidence that settles the matter, I will continue to ask if Henrico school administrators are enacting initiatives based on a profound misunderstanding.

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19 responses to “Teenagers and the New Taboos of Race

  1. Sounds a little bit like those “re-education camps” over in Asia, eh?

    I’m not a big fan of govt-led entities telling folks the difference between right and wrong though I will admit that that is exactly what a lot of elementary teachers end up doing because it’s not been done before for some kids and for others they’ve already been taught “wrong”!

    But in terms of those MS kids that simulated “rape” .. does anyone reading this think that their parents are probably paragons of racial diversity who have tried to teach their kids right – but the kids went wrong anyhow?

    I strongly suspect that the kids most active in the wrongdoing probably come from families who “think” that way anyhow.

    Maybe I’m prejudiced , eh?

  2. The thin veneer of civilization is extremely thin among middle school students. But at that age at least some of them were acting on attitudes they picked up at home, or from some other adult role models, and the others didn’t have the good judgement to refuse to go along or to (heaven forbid) go find a teacher to stop it cold. Which is why punishing all of them was exactly the right thing to do, teamwork and sportsmanship being the main lesson you hope for with youth sports (a silly dream these days, I know.)

    You will recall an earlier discussion, Jim, about the importance of getting more black teachers and administrators into all of the schools. That would do more good than an army of diversity bureaucrats. But with middle school boys, just don’t ever leave them alone like that. Ever.

  3. I agree that the team-wide punishment was appropriate. This is very bad behavior that needs to be called out. And sometimes a good way to do this is to punish the entire team – indeed the entire school. I bet if there is a next time, some will speak out.

  4. re: ” … didn’t have the good judgement to refuse to go along or to (heaven forbid) go find a teacher to stop it cold. Which is why punishing all of them was exactly the right thing to do, teamwork and sportsmanship being the main lesson you hope for with youth sports (a silly dream these days, I know.)”

    totally agree. Either quit the team or stand up to the bad behaviors before those behaviors essentially define the team ….

    I have to say – this reminds me back way back when schools were desegregated and this kind of thing was fairly common – and they even made a movie about it : Remember the Titans .

    • Larry:

      There you go again … believing Hollywood. At the time of “Remember the Titans” the only segregated schools in Northern Virginia were in Alexandria. Alexandria was the last jurisdiction to de-segregate in Northern Virginia, not the first. Denzel Washington has a long history of acting in movies that purport to tell the truth (Based on a true story) while actually perpetuating a broad based lie. Remember the Titans was no different. One critical scene in the movies has Denzel Washington’s character telling the Titans about “playing those all white teams out in the county …”. The simple fact is that the TC Williams Titans never played an all white team that year, not once, not ever. Fairfax County de-segregated their schools in 1963. While Alexandria technically de-segregated that same year the tiny little city of 15 sq mi operated multiple high schools which preserved effective segregation. In the early 1970s, the school system was under threat of sanction and a forced integration plan by what was then known as the federal Housing, Education and Welfare Department. So in 1971, the School Board consolidated its three high schools into one, T.C. Williams.

      It was the 1971 TC Williams football team that was the subject of Remember the Titans. The first team to play for the consolidated (and now actually de-segregated) high school. The team was exceptionally good (funny what consolidating three teams into one will do for the quality of play). The coaches and players definitely provided a model of racial harmony by working together. However, they never played against segregated all-white schools in Northern Virginia in 1971 because there weren’t any.

      • DJ – I’ll buy your version over the movie version but what was depicted in the movie was not uncommon in other parts of Virginia after desegregation.

        Some desegregated schools had zero black players.. !!

        The bigger point here is that the crap going on at that Henrico MS – is very reminiscent of the past and the present for those who think or ever thought we’re in a post-racial society.

        We still some of this going on – just under the surface… and every now ad then it gets re-exposed.

        Anyone who thinks that only a few were “responsible” is apparently willing to overlook the complicity of the others – and that’s pretty much how things worked back in the 60s, and 70’s in a lot of places.

        • I agree with that. Virginia’s history around desegregation was one of the worst in the United States. Disgraceful conduct from the Imperial Clown Show in Richmond … as usual.

          I support the decision to end the team’s season. The kind of behavior described in Jim’s blog post not only indicates a lack of proper upbringing among some of the kids it also points to a failed team. If even a few of the kids on the team go home and reflect on the consequences of unacceptable behavior and what it means to look out for a teammate then the canceled season will be well worth the price.

  5. A summer ago I was lounging at my community pool. A bunch of boys are middle school age were playing water polo. They were screaming, “Mexico sucks! Mexico sucks!.” I asked them why they said that. One replied, “That’s what Donald Trump says.”

    So, one can tut-tut about “government” involvement in enhanced diversity awareness officials at a public school. But that misses the point. The point is that Americans have tolerated the kind of bombast, tacky sexuality and bragging that the likes of Trump have foisted on this country. Look at the past weeks’ news out of Albama, Hollywood and New York. It is time to put a stop this this.

    As for boys being boys, I went to a parochial school for middle school and a private, Catholic boys school for high school.

    If any one us were caught making a similar video, we’d be out on our asses faster that you can say Hail Mary.

    • “Mexico sucks” Absent some rules from the (private?) community pool, why doesn’t the First Amendment apply? What’s the difference between football players taking a knee and the boys at the pool?

      And would you have objected if they had been saying “Germany sucks” or “England suck”?

  6. Punishing whole teams for the bad behavior of individuals is part of sports. It certainly wasn’t the Penn State football players who were taking showers with little boys. It wasn’t SMU’s players who were paying some players. In both cases it was the coaches. But the sanctions were against the teams which hurt the players. One of the things playing team sports is supposed to teach the players is to stick up for your teammates. That lesson wasn’t being learned by that middle school football team. Hopefully the canceled season will provide a “teaching moment”.

  7. Yes, it was a private neighborhood and the HOA rules say no abusive language and behavior allowed. There is not a thing about First Amendment rights. It is about accepted rules. To use the pool, kids and their parents must abide by them. There is no question that what the kids were saying was abusive and offensive. I make no apologies for shutting it done.

    • While I think the kids were trying to be abusive they were doing so in a convoluted way. They weren’t yelling “Mexicans suck” they were yelling “Mexico sucks”. Would you want them thrown out if they yelled “North Korea sucks”? Frankly, when I see NFL players kneeling during the national anthem on Veterans’ Day weekend they might as well be yelling “America sucks” as far as I’m concerned. Maybe they should be thrown out of the league which, like your HoA, is also a private place with rules against kneeling during our national anthem.

      I’m 99% sure those kids in the pool were being abusive. However, I’d would have liked to hear the ringleader’s explanation for the chant. If he or she said, “Mexico has a corrupt political system with rampant cronyism and a law enforcement incompetence that lets drug cartels control vast swaths of the country. This impoverishes the Mexican people and encourages illegal migration into the US thus making us an importer of the problems caused by the Mexican government’s criminality” I might have sent him back into the pool.

    • Under those circumstances, Peter, I agree with you completely.

  8. Bullying is about mob behavior, the coercive effect of peer pressure. Sure, there’s usually a bully-in-chief leading the torment, or maybe more than one, but it’s up to the rest of the “team” to resist piling on. I’m with punishing the team as a whole; they certainly knew or should have known better.

    Jim, you are completely right in my book about MS kids looking for ways to be edgy and what the new “edge” is. And we all know the importance of peer approval to kids that age and how bullies learn to manipulate that urge. But the team is responsible for its members going along, even for their silence as mere observers. Indeed, coaching a team is all about teaching unity of purpose despite different gifts, not ignoring bullying whatever its form — where were the coaches in this?

    • The bullying issue is complicated. One of my kids was severely bullied in middle school, and it nearly ruined his life. It was painfully difficult extracting any information from him — he was too ashamed and humiliated to admit what was happening to him, and he feared retribution if word got out that he squealed. When we finally did get the story and went to the school authorities, they were sympathetic but said they really couldn’t do anything. Presumably, the bullies would deny doing anything — they were shrewd enough to inflict their torment when no one else was around — so it became a he-said, they-said situation, and nothing would ever get resolved.

      The assumption in these the comments is that other team members knew what was going on and said nothing. That may be true — but it may not be. Based on media reports, we don’t know the context and circumstances.

      All we know is that someone was stupid enough to post the video online. The bullies weren’t sharing the video with parents and school authorities, so some kid must have turned them in. Who was that kid? Was he a team member? We don’t know? How much time elapsed between the time of the bullying and the posting of the video, and the revelation to school authorities. We don’t know.

      Was this the first time this kind of bullying occurred? Or had the black kids been persecuted for a long time without anyone saying anything? We don’t know.

      • I agree. I also generally disagree with the trend of this discussion, without knowing more, and insuring too that whatever happens here would have happened the same way no matter the skin color of the victims and the transgressors. We must insure that these events do not become political footballs and yet another opportunity for grandstanding everyones virtue, at the expense of kids, or any innocent for that matter.

      • I certainly don’t know those details. And I agree that the conduct of these kids, while blameworthy, is also a consequence of every teenagers’ struggle to push limits until there’s a reaction. In attempting to impose civil rights correctness through bureaucracy the schools are doing what families ought to do in the first place: teach societal values. The fact that so many kids don’t already share those values at home and bring them to school and act on them in the locker room speaks to the latent racism still out there. Which supports your argument that, “In the current environment, no one can veer from the party line without being judged a racist, so people shut up. And keep their opinions to themselves. And vote for Donald Trump.” We can infer from the size of the number that voted that way, by itself, that racism remains a huge problem and that Virginians as a whole are far from absorbing the decisions and lessons of a half-century ago.

        All that said, this incident also smacks of kids bullying kids just because they are different, regardless of what made them different. That brings in a whole ‘nother set of concerns for educators and parents about underlying causes; bullying is terrible at that age. But: on both grounds — racism and bullying; you called it both — it’s not team-appropriate behavior and IMO the team should share responsibility for the consequences, even if no one else on the team knew about it beforehand or saw it happen or participated in posting it or bragged about it. These kids let their team-mates down.

        We could argue whether the team should share responsibility if the victims were not also team-mates. Or if not even students at the same school. But that’s another discussion.

  9. Don the Ripper,
    I personally know some Mexicans who are fine people. I also know some Russians who are fine people. I even know a few from NOVA who are OK people.

  10. re: “what we don’t know”

    well… that’s probably a problem because with stuff like this – what you don’t know is probably not good.. and the really bad thing is that IF stuff like this has been going on .. nothing has been done about it – and like Jim’s son – it becomes systemic and essentially institutional… because of complicit attitudes.

    Not advocating that we hunt all of it down -just pointing out that what you don’t know is not a reason to walk away saying “we don’t know”. you’ve got some smoke here.. and if you want to squelch it if it exists – you’ve got to do more than “we didn’t know”.

    So that’s essentially what the school did – in response – they admitted they did not know – and they’re apparently committed to finding out more as they should IMHO.

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