Column

Educating our way to love is a lesson we sorely need

A teacher shows us how to prevent tragedy

Photo of Andre Perry

Degree of  Interest

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Last week, a video was released of Keanon Lowe, a football and track coach at Parkrose High School in Portland, Oregon, disarming a would-be student attacker, hugging him until authorities arrived. The incident occurred in May, but the superintendent of schools didn’t want to release the surveillance video for fear it would add stress to a traumatized student body and violate rules that prevent the disclosure of the identities of youth.

Sports Illustrated magazine narrated the events in its August 26, 2019 issue.

“Nobody cares about me!” [Granados-Diaz] screamed.

Lowe looked into his eyes. “I care about you,” he said.

“You do?”

Lowe says that broke his heart, seeing Granados-Diaz raise his head and return his gaze. “I do, bro!” Lowe said. “That’s why I’m here. I got you, buddy.”

Lowe’s courageous and deeply loving action turned a potential tragedy into a non-incident, which may never have seen the light of day if not for the now-viral video. The act of kindness was certainly not lost on me. I needed to see that video. Around this time last year, Robert Gregory Bowers killed 11 congregants of the Tree of Life Synagogue in my home town, Pittsburgh, Pa, in an anti-Semitic shooting. Video footage from that horrible tragedy is beginning to resurface.

The terrorist attack took the lives of Joyce Fienberg, Richard Gottfried, Rose Mallinger, Jerry Rabinowitz, David and Cecil Rosenthal, Bernice and Sylvan Simon, Daniel Stein, Melvin Wax and Irving Younger. The October 27, 2018 shooting occurred in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, which I used to frequent as a child, seeking good pizza, laughs and camaraderie with my classmates.

Sadly, the synagogue attack is only one of several hate-filled incidents, all grim, heated by the flames of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and racism and fanned by the rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump.

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While I certainly share some of the concerns of the Portland schools superintendent about worrying the student body, I believe the country needs to see the video — now more than ever. Love is needed in the face of bigotry and hate. Lowe’s courageous act of kindness is the solution to what’s troubling this country.

Trump’s time in office corresponds with a rise in hate crimes. According to an FBI report issued in November 2018, hate crimes in United States rose 17 percent in 2017. It was the third year in a row the country realized an increase, and that included a 37 percent rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes.

Trump dispenses hatred from the largest bully pulpit in the world, the U.S. presidency. His nasty habit of equating hate groups with civil rights activists, anarchists and other groups that are opposed to white nationalism encourages extremists to come out of the shadows and into the mainstream. By putting bigots on the same plane as antiracist activists, Trump normalizes bigotry, twisting it into a parody of patriotism.

Those who subscribe to the ideology of white supremacy are a clear danger to democracy. But those suffering from mental illnesses pose a particular threat in a gun-saturated society. Two days before the Tree of Life shooting, Trump tweeted, “Sadly, it looks like Mexico’s Police and Military are unable to stop the Caravan heading to the Southern Border of the United States. Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in. I have alerted Border Patrol and Military that this is a National Emergy [sic]. Must change laws!”

Before the shooting, Bowers had accused the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, a group which helps resettle refugees, of bringing “invaders in that kill our people.” The post appeared on the social network Gab, a platform used by white supremacists, neo-Nazis and alt-right adherents. After a series of additional anti-Semitic messages, Bowers’ final post on Gab, before he embarked on his killing spree, said: “I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered. Screw your optics, I’m going in.”

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I have a hard time distinguishing between a “normal” person who will kill based on conspiracy theories, a belief in white supremacy and political partisanship, and someone with a mental illness who kills in the name of those same things. For me, racism is a form of mental illness. A racist worldview embodies a break from reality that requires treatment and social support for individual and community wellness.

The racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism that is as American as apple pie grooms us for violence in many contexts. We will suspend, jail, harass and even kill our way toward resolution instead of seeking counseling, support and/or understanding. The student who Lowe disarmed and potentially saved from harm was reported to have had a mental breakdown. However, people who suffer from mental illness in other countries are not shooting up schools and other public spaces. The act of a man hugging a boy into resolution is instead drowned out by the many mundane acts of violence we see every day.

On the anniversary of the Tree of Life murders, we will see images of love, compassion and empathy for neighbors of different races, nationalities and religions. However, we can’t continue to express this deep love and affirmation of community only after tragedy strikes; we need to practice love regularly in order to prevent calamity.

What Lowe showed us in that video — which I encourage everyone to see — is that the moral force of love can counter the immoral, racist and partisan worldviews that have taken root in American society. It’s the bond between two humans, exemplified in this sacred student-teacher relationship, that needs our full attention, not Trump’s tweets.

James Ford, the 2015 North Carolina State Teacher of the Year, told Education Week, “Our first job as teachers is to make sure that we learn our students, that we connect with them on a real level, showing respect for their culture and affirming their worthiness to receive the best education possible.”

It’s clear we cannot look to Trump for moral leadership. But we can learn from our teachers who show by doing, and who are building the kinds of bonds that can save our nation.

This story about hate crimes was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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