In the Minneapolis suburb of Columbia Heights, Minnesota, a community is reeling. Last week, their school board cast a vote that retained Grant Nichols, a member who came under scrutiny for allegedly posting derogatory comments against Muslims on his Facebook page. The event also prompted a school visit from Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton.
The headline broke in concert with another national media story of a Muslim student in Texas named Ahmed Mohamed, who was arrested for bringing an electronic clock he built to school. However, unlike Ahmed's story, the student body in Columbia Heights set a praiseworthy leadership example for school districts across our nation. At Columbia Heights High School, the student body chose to peacefully walk out in protest of the vote that failed to remove Nichols.
We often label our younger generation as too disconnected from reality, and too numb from burying their heads into their iPads and phones all day long. However in Columbia Heights it is the students have handed their community a healthy lesson in civics worth paying attention to. In fact, they have shown the kind of courage, poise, and conviction that would make our nation's founders proud. More importantly, the students may have uncovered an activity that has been absent from suburban school districts across our nation for some time; action.
Facing the "Undercurrents" of Race Relations
As and Indian American and one of the few minority students at CHHS in the 1980s, action often eluded the faculty when confronted with instances of racial discrimination. Overall, my high school experiences were pleasant, and resulted in lasting friendships over the decades. However, there were times when bigotry and ignorance would rear their ugly head, both in the student body and in the broader institutional values of my high school. As a minority [and an awkward teen], it was often difficult to recognize if successes were being marginalized by the institution, either on the athletic field or in the classroom. Looking back, they most certainly were. At times, it was even harder to understand why individuals would choose derogatory ways of expressing their curiosity, such as statements like "your jersey stinks like curry," or when a teacher would casually offer to educate me on racial epithets commonly used in "American" homes. Luckily, many of my classmates and faculty members recognized this fact, and their collective decency made my high school experience both pleasant and instrumental to my future career.
Nevertheless, "tyranny of the majority" was reality for most minorities in my school, and often sponsored by the institution. Challenging acts of bigotry, especially when it came from faculty, demanded that minorities pick their battles wisely. In this respect, human courage and survival often walk a fine line for minorities in small, suburban communities across America. Many of the lessons I learned served me well in my career, both as an Air Force pilot over the skies of Afghanistan, and in my subsequent positions in federal service.
A Lesson in Civics From Our Next Greatest Generation
That's what made this week's events at CHHS worthy of praise for the students. One can't help but note that the students of CHHS, by openly rejecting hatred, have taken a bold step to moving the needle forward in their community and across America. I hope their sentiment energizes communities like the one in Texas, where the undercurrents of hatred and bigotry cause kids to get arrested for bringing digital projects to school.
While the CHHS students may have missed a literature class or two during their walk out, their actions conveyed a unique mastery of the works of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King, all in one day. Peaceful acts of non-cooperation and civil disobedience inspire us to action, and invigorate our democracy. In this respect, we would do well as a nation not to underestimate the soul of our next greatest generation. While their heads remain buried in their iPads, they have often traveled allegorically around the world twice before we've even had the chance to finish our morning coffee.
When it comes to bigotry and hate, our next greatest generation has spoken, and held our nation accountable for ensuring that "E' Pluribus Unum" maintains a prominent place in our national conscience. The CHHS student body has displayed a special brand of courage, one that will serve them well, and unify our nation in times of uncertainty.
In the wake of this incident and in the days ahead, we must always remember that bigotry and hate need only one thing to take hold in our great nation; that is for decent people to stand on the sidelines. Despite all of the xenophobic hatred put forth in the national media, the students of CHHS have challenged the norm, fought to keep hatred at bay, and inspired us with a sense of optimism for the future of race relations in our nation. They are truly Hylanders in every sense of the term. In the words of our great alma mater, Roll-on!
Ravi Chaudhary is Executive Director, Regions and Center Operations at the Federal Aviation Administration. He is a Former Air Force Officer and Member of the President's Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.