To the Editor:
The Fourth of July is a time of joy and pride. Americans celebrate freedom and democracy — and, for some, the South’s racially motivated insurgency against the nation. I was upset and, quite frankly, scared to see photos from a party that students from my high school class posted online. In red, white, and blue outfits, with sparklers in hand, they posed in front of Confederate and American flags, held side by side.
As I scrolled through my Facebook feed, I was thrown back to my junior year at East Meadow High School. I remembered the fear that I and so many others felt as we came across pictures a high school senior posted in a Facebook group for photos of prom dresses. A swastika was clearly visible on one girl’s hand. As the story goes, she had been to a party the night before, and members of the football team drew the Nazi symbol on partygoers’ hands. She had forgotten to wipe it off before trying on her prom dress.
This was a harbinger of future discrimination. In the coming months, a friend was called a “dirty Jew,” and swastikas were drawn on cafeteria tables, in gym locker rooms and in Holocaust Studies textbooks. Students ditched a mandatory Holocaust presentation and laughed at the program’s message. In a town with a lively Jewish community that proudly displays menorahs in windows every Hanukkah, we suddenly felt an existential threat. Local temples spoke about how to protect ourselves in physical attacks, and urged us to call police if we saw swastikas on our lockers.
Jewish alumni still remember these incidents as defining moments of their high school experiences, when we were forced to confront anti-Semitism in the place we call home. Seeing the Confederate flag, a symbol of the enslavement of African-Americans that has since been adopted by the Ku Klux Klan, feels reminiscent of the discrimination we have seen in East Meadow.
These may be isolated incidents, and I hope they are. The use of these symbols hardly feels that way, however, given the contexts of racism with which we are familiar. Housing discrimination against people of color continues to define the racial composition of communities across Long Island. East Meadow’s relative diversity is a source of fear to those who would like to keep Long Island segregated. Such fear of demographic change draws community members to racist ideology and hate speech. I don’t believe that the teenagers I grew up with identify with the radical white supremacist movement that takes pride in Confederate imagery. But the effects of spreading these images are the same, regardless of intention.
How do we respond? A halfhearted Holocaust assembly in our high schools is no longer enough to combat the discrimination that some community members face. Our schools need to further embrace educational programs in tolerance, and point directly to these acts as condemned examples of hate. Community activists need to be proactive in promoting an environment that welcomes and is accessible to all. And, most important, we need greater discussion across East Meadow about the reality of bigotry and violence that is happening across the country and in our own town. We must confront how our community contributes to the oppression that marginalized groups face, from Long Island’s ongoing history of segregation and racialized wealth disparity, to our silence today over acts of hate speech.
We can do better, East Meadow.
Duke University sophomore