The racist TikTok video that roiled a Georgia high school could have been a teachable moment. But administrators chose excommunication over education.
Carrollton City Schools swiftly expelled two white high school seniors whose cooking show spoof featured the N-word as the "recipe" and negative stereotypes about African Americans as "ingredients." Delivered in a hollow deadpan, the 50-second performance stoked outrage and disgust.
The smartphone video, recorded in one of the students' bathrooms, surfaced on April 16. Within 24 hours, Superintendent Mark Albertus announced that the teens were no longer Carrollton High School students.
Racist speech is contemptible, but so long as it doesn't include threats or incite violence, it's legal. School officials likely violated the former students' First Amendment rights. For starters, federal courts are split on when public schools can impose punishment for off-campus behavior. The video hit TikTok while students are out of school due to the coronavirus pandemic.
If the crude conduct is within the school district's purview, it would have to meet the Supreme Court's substantial disruption test established in Tinker v. Des Moines, the landmark 1969 case affirming high school students' free speech rights. Justices ruled that public schools can't censor student expression unless it would "materially and substantially interfere" with school operations and discipline.
Writing for the high court's 7-2 majority, Justice Abe Fortas added, "undifferentiated fear or apprehension of disturbance is not enough to overcome the right to freedom of expression."
Substantial disruption is a high bar. It's a dubious claim to make when students are learning remotely. How could any video, no matter how offensive, disrupt vacant classrooms or spark fights in empty hallways?
The legal case for cracking down on the TikTok performers is shaky at best. The moral case might be even flimsier.
Punishing people for prejudice doesn't enlighten them; it merely drives them underground. The history of conspiracy theories, cults and hate groups in America proves suppression and social isolation to be a poor strategy for reform.
Is the goal to silence racist invective by government force, or to confront and debunk it in the public square? When high school students express wrongheaded views, should we seek revenge or restorative justice?
All racists aren't created equal. There are entrenched, violent hatemongers, and there are misguided people with bad ideas who are open to persuasion.
A 2016 study published in the Science journal showed that a 10-minute conversation could "markedly reduce prejudice" against transgender people. Researchers conducted door-to-door canvassing and asked questions that encouraged subjects to consider issues from a transgender person's perspective.
"A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans' average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012," authors David Broockman and Joshua Kalla wrote. "These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective."
Even the most diehard bigots may not be lost causes. Daryl Davis, an accomplished black musician, struck up an unlikely friendship with Ku Klux Klan leader Robert Kelly.
Davis dismantled racial stereotypes through one-on-one dialogue, and Kelly eventually left the Klan and gifted Davis his robe. Now a sought-after author and speaker, Davis has collected more than 200 robes from ex-Klansmen who have disavowed white supremacist ideology.
It isn't African Americans' responsibility to engage with people who might mean them harm. But prejudice is born of ignorance, and replacing ignorance with knowledge is precisely the mission we ask our public schools to carry out.
Carrollton City Schools didn't bother to ask why two of its students thought it was funny to mock people of color, or take any time to consider how professional educators could show them the error of their ways. The district abandoned its duty to teach, opting instead to ostracize.
No one's wringing their hands over whether two suburban white kids who voiced odious opinions got a fair shake. Correcting their warped worldview, however, isn't solely for their benefit. It would be a service to everyone they'll meet in society at large. Eradicating prejudice makes communities better.
Carrollton's disgraced TikTok teens had much to learn about humanity. It's hard to teach them anything after kicking them out of school.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.
Photo credit: antonbe at Pixabay