There's a famous story in the Goff household about my mom's first week back in school shortly after it was integrated. There was a boy who apparently wasn't a fan of the progress our country was making and decided to take it out on my mom by shouting the N-word at her repeatedly, every single day. For days mom turned the other cheek, so to speak, but on the fifth day she declared loud enough for everyone to hear, that she was going to beat the stuffing out of the guy. Now anyone who knows my mother knows that she would have, had the principal, who was white, not stepped in and warned Mr. Bully that if he didn't leave her alone not only would my mom have the principal's permission to punch him but he would also be kicked out of school.
That was the end of Mr. Bully's bullying.
Most of us would like to believe that the kind of prejudice my mom faced is a thing of the past. The thinking goes, "Sure prejudice exists but it's more subtle" or as an older family friend once said, "People no longer spit in your face but in your food."
But in recent days we've all been reminded that this is not true and that the kind of prejudice and open hostility my mom faced fifty years ago is still alive and well in America's schools.
In recent weeks Asher Brown, Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, Tyler Clementi and Raymond Chase killed themselves. While we are still awaiting key details in some of the cases, we do know this: All of the boys either self-identified as gay or their classmates believed that they were. Billy Lucas was 15 years old, while Asher Brown and Seth Walsh were just thirteen-years-old, yet they faced constantl bullying, ranging from verbal to physical, at the hands of classmates for their perceived sexual orientation. In the case of Tyler Clementi, the college freshman is believed to have jumped from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly tweeted, then recorded and broadcast an intimate encounter Tyler had with another man.
Sadly, these are not the first instances of this type of bullying resulting in death. Last year the suicide of 11-year-old Carl Walker made national headlines when he hung himself after being teased relentlessly by classmates who accused him of being gay. (To learn more about Carl's tragic life and death click here to view the Public Service Announcement inspired by his story.)
These tragedies have led me to ponder the following question: If a young student was called the N-word every day for weeks or months on end, and after repeated cries for help finally took his own life, how quickly do you think citizens of all races would take to the streets to protest? Or better yet, how quickly would Al Sharpton and Co. demand accountability from the school and elected officials under the threat of casting the kind of media spotlight that people like Don Imus have nightmares about?
As I noted on Monday's episode of "The Dylan Ratigan Show," in these recent cases it is alleged that the students and their families sought help from various school officials with limited and disappointing results. But I have a hard time believing that if these kids had been bullied for their race, not for their sexual identities, that the adults tasked to protect them would not have reacted differently, or at the very least would have reacted at all.
Which makes me think that the kids doing the bullying are not really the ones at fault. They are simply taking their cues from adults. And the message they are receiving is that today in 2010 it may not be okay to call someone the N-word on the playground, but it is okay to call someone the F-word.
Ten years ago Matthew Shepard's death became a rallying cry for college students of my generation. Many of us assumed (naively, we now know) that the kind of blatant, violent homophobia Matthew suffered would be a thing of the past in the near future. In the last decade our country has advanced significantly on the issue of gay rights, with a majority of Americans now supporting a variety of measures for gays and lesbians that they didn't just a few years ago. We also have more openly gay public figures and elected officials than we ever have. But the deaths of Asher, Billy, Seth, Tyler and Raymond show that we still have work to do.
We need more adults willing to display the kind of courage that my mother's principal did all of those years ago, when he stood up for someone because it was the right thing to do, not because it was the popular or politically correct thing to do. Because until we as adults confront homophobia head on, our kids are going to continue to victimize other kids and think it's okay and that they have our blessing to do so. But we owe our kids more than that.
We owe the memory of Asher, Billy, Seth, Tyler and Raymond more than that. This post originally appeared on TheLoop21.com for which Goff is a political blogger.