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Racist 'promposal' shows troubling social media trend: 'Bigotry is funny'

Los Angeles Times — By Hannah Fry and Colleen Shalby Los Angeles Times

May 16-- LOS ANGELES-The racist "promposal" that has rocked Palos Verdes High School is part of what at least one expert says is a much larger problem.

Even in a state as diverse as California, there are some pockets where racist behavior still thrives, often in the form of jokes and purposeful challenges to political correctness.

Brian Levin, director of Cal State San Bernardino's Center on Hate and Extremism, noted there are still communities in California that are highly segregated. This, he said, along with such factors as ignorance and bigotry can contribute to an increase in hate incidents.

"Many of these people who are engaging in hate speech are not hardcore hatemongers," he said. "We have this middle group of people who think bigotry is funny."

WHAT HAPPENED AT PALOS VERDES?

An image taken during a "promposal" that included a racial slur appeared on social media this week.

A photo shows a boy, identified by his peers as a foreign exchange student, smiling. With him is a girl, who has thrown her head back in laughter.

They are holding a poster that reads, "Bianca You are racist, but I would give anything for you to go with me to prom." Six extra-large letters within that message spell out the N-word. The bold lettering of the racial slur stands out starkly.

Palos Verdes High School Principal Allan Tyner visited classrooms Wednesday to address the message with students. He said the conversations were to "review appropriate behavior" and "how the use of hurtful racial slurs ... is unacceptable."

The campus was more empty than usual because some students opted to stay home after threats of a shooting circulated on social media following the promposal photo.

WHAT IS THE BIGGER PICTURE?

Hate incidents have been going up nationally and locally. And schools are not immune.

In California, there was a 65% increase in hate crimes on elementary and secondary school campuses from 2012 to 2017, according to a report by the state's Department of Justice.

There has been a huge jump in recent years of reported "papering" incidents on high school and college campuses, with hate groups posting fliers with slogans like, "It's OK to be white" and "protect your heritage," Levin told The Times earlier this month.

Los Angeles recorded its highest level of reports of hate crimes in a decade, with a nearly 13% increase in 2018 over the year before. Last year, L.A. tallied 289 hate crimes, compared with 256 in 2017, according to Los Angeles police statistics gathered by researchers at Cal State San Bernardino. Members of the LGBTQ community, African Americans and Jews were the most frequently targeted, according to a report released by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism.

Levin noted that it's no surprise that social media has become a flashpoint for this kind of behavior.

"In today's social media world, all kinds of bigotry-whether it's committed purposefully or recklessly-oftentimes is going to be aired in a way that's hurtful and divisive in a community, irrespective of intent," Levin said.

HAVE THERE BEEN OTHER HATE INCIDENTS ON LOCAL CAMPUSES?

-A Newport Beach high school made national headlines in March when a group of students at a party posed with red plastic cups arranged in the shape of a swastika as some stood with hands outstretched in Nazi salutes.

The incident prompted much soul-searching in the community, including rallies in which students and residents called out the behavior.

-In September, after a high school football game in Orange County, Santa Ana High Principal Jeff Bishop said in a Facebook post that he was upset over what he saw as a "racist welcome" by Aliso Niguel students.

Students from Aliso Niguel, whose student body is majority white, hung signs at the football game that read "We love White" and "Build the Wall." Their opponent, Santa Ana High School, has a student body that is almost entirely Latino.

-In December, students at Matilija Junior High School in Ojai lay down in the shape of a swastika on a field and shared a photo in a group chat that included racist comments.

-In 2016, a sophomore at Shadow Hills High School in Indio came to class dressed as a Nazi on Halloween, and the school held sensitivity training after pictures of her circulated on Twitter and Snapchat.

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