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El Paso and white supremacy: Supporting students in a racially polarized time.

Protest Sign: Education not deportation

As we circled up to discuss student experiences with law enforcement and the courts, Juliette told a harrowing tale. She recalled how immigration had entered her house and grabbed her father out of bed.

“I tried to jump in front of the car to stop them, and they almost ran me over as they swerved into the street,” she said. “They deported him, but luckily he’s back now.”

Sadly, this is an all-too-common experience for many of our students at Back of the Yards College Prep High School (BOYCP) on the Southwest Side. And it is why we designed a two-day lesson addressing events and themes that hit home for our students, like the Aug. 3 El Paso mass murder, which took the lives of 21 Latinx people in one of the worst hate crimes on record.

BYOCP students are overwhelmingly Latinx, low income and, like most young people of their generation, have largely stopped reading newspapers and magazines. Instead, they rely upon Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, and increasingly TikTok feeds to access current events.

Teaching El Paso

One of our central objectives in teaching “El Paso” was to engage them in analysis and conversation about the links between white supremacist rhetoric and hate-inspired violence. We suspected that students possessed a surface understanding of the motivations and backdrop of the incident but not a comprehensive understanding of what caused it.

To introduce the lesson, we asked students to share what current events stood out to them over the summer. Josh mentioned “a big hurricane somewhere,” Jazmine brought up “a lot of Cardi B and Offset’s relationship drama,” and Allie recalled a racist shooting of Mexicans in El Paso.

Students remembered that the killer had racist intentions but not the extent of planning and intention behind the attack or the important context of Trump’s racist summer rants about U.S. Rep. Alexadria Ocasio-Cortez — and other members of the “Squad” — being anti-American or Baltimore being a “disgusting, rat- and rodent-infested mess.”

Social media concerns

One student expressed concern that relying on social media alone for news left him lacking critical details. “I don’t really know anything about it, but it happened,” John said. Karla intuited that social media had an oversized impact on the killer himself and the aftermath of the killing. “Trump is the main reason (for the violence), but others have similar mindsets, and social media blows up their platform,” she rightly noted.

We invited students to annotate selected news excerpts and posts from anti-extremist organizations. We also dissected a Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) report on the shooting. Throughout this process, it became painfully obvious to everyone that the Aug. 3 massacre was firmly rooted in white supremacist motivations.

While annotating a quote from the killer’s manifesto, Idaly talked back to the text, saying, “Trump has said these same things 100 times before and it inspires mentally ill people.” Aaliyah pushed back on the mental illness thesis stating that, “Trump has a big audience and, when he says that we are ‘an invasion,’ it gives white supremacists more ideas to use for their attacks.” Kevin doubled down on that idea: “Trump will call racists mentally ill but call people in our community terrorists and criminals.”

One section of the SPLC report explains how the shooter targeted a heavily Hispanic shopping center that he believed would be full of “Mexican nationals” and that his manifesto opines on “demographic displacement,” “white genocide” and “illegal immigration.” Students were shocked at how blatant, unrepentant and explicit of an attack it was on their community and their personhood.

Hate crimes on the rise

“Ever since Trump became president hate crimes are increasing and he doesn’t acknowledge that but blames mental illness,” Lilian observed. “But if people of color would have done something like this, he would’ve blamed us for it.”

By the end of the lesson, it became clear that most students do not see Trump as an outlier or an expert at converting regular people into racists. “This didn’t happen mostly because of the president,” Noelia noted during our talking circle after the exercise. “The ideas are already in their [the killers’] head.”

Candace summed it up this way: “We already have hatred. Trump just picks words they want to hear and makes their actions more extreme.”

Jackson Potter, Alex Rolnick, and Alejandra Moreno teach social studies at Back of the Yards College Prep High School. The names of students in the article have been changed to protect their privacy.