A November 22 copy of the Tokay High School newspaper, Tokay Press, came across my desk late last week.
The issue had two items about racism. Guest writer Kody Oppendike, a Tokay freshman, wrote an Op-ed titled "Student rallies against racism."
And journalism student Jesse Aranda wrote a column, "Racism becomes more prominent on campus," with references to Oppendike's piece.
As one who is routinely labeled a racist because of my immigration reform views, I'm drawn inexorably toward any and all articles about the subject. I'm fascinated by the various interpretations of the word. Maybe I'm looking for new ways to get off the hook onto which others have unfairly stuck me.
Tokay High is best and the worst place for an examination of this complex and emotional subject. Because Tokay is one of the most diverse high schools in the San Joaquin County, the potential for racism is always alive and well.
But because Tokay High School is populated by young minds that are constantly (we hope) evolving, it is the worst place. What may seem like racism to a casual observer may in fact be a machismo charged moment that has little or nothing to do with race.
Ethnic slurs on campus are boorish and immature. I'm not sure that they reflect anything more than that.
And Tokay conflict manager Sheila Abdallah agrees. She told Aranda, "These situations are blown way out of proportion."
After considerable study—both formal and informal—and after years of contemplation, I have concluded that while racist attitudes and actions indeed occur, the word "racist" has come to mean - well, nothing.
So commonly is the word thrown around that few who hear it pay much heed.
"Racist" has been used so loosely used that it the charge has lost all impact.
"He is racist," is a very convenient substitute for intelligent dialogue on what may have nothing to do with skin color, religious persuasion, or sexual orientation. "Racist" is guaranteed to be the last word in any conversation.
Are white people who think that O.J. Simpson is a heinous individual who should have been sent to the electric chair for the murder of his wife and her companion a racist? If you want to know what a person thinks about O.J. Simpson hold off on the stereotypes.
I called Oppendike to talk with him about racism at Tokay High School. Oppendike is bright, engaging and sincere. And I support him in all his efforts to stamp out racism wherever it might exist.
As a starting point I asked Oppendike which of these two statements would he agree with more:
Oppendike opted for answer "A."
You will not be surprised to learn that my choice is "B."
I reminded Oppendike that if America were a racist nation, Tokay High School would not have the ethnic make up it does. The school is approximately 45% White, 25% Asian, 25% Hispanic.
America has nearly 290 million people. As a percentage of the total population, individuals who are involved in racist incidents is infinitesimally low.
Despite countless reports in newspapers about racism and "hate crimes," there just isn't that much. "Racism" and "hate crimes" make for dramatic stories. But the facts don't substantiate the claims.
I'm glad that high school students are alert and ready to combat racism.
But I would encourage them not to view every incident through the prism of race. The most important lesson high school and college students can learn is to think for themselves.
Racism is the last option that should be considered in trying to evaluate the seriousness of a conflict.
Explore everything else first before concluding that racism is the culprit.
Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.