The headlines read like news from the 1960s: Students at an Ohio high school hung “whites only” and “blacks only” signs above the water fountains. In Maryland, a Confederate flag was hung outside a high school. And in Florida, white students at a middle school took a photo holding up letters that spelled a racial slur.
But the cases all happened in the past year as students have returned to school, bringing incidents of racial bullying with them.
When the pandemic forced classrooms online, schools experienced a promising phenomenon: a decline in the number of in-person bullying incidents. But the behavior didn’t stop — it merely continued online. And as students returned to classrooms, a dizzying number of high-profile, racist incidents reemerged across the country.
The trend is likely to disproportionately affect Black children, history suggests. Despite accounting for just 15% of the public school population, Black students are 35% of children bullied because of their race, according to a 2018 analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Education.
“I don’t think that we should be surprised,” said Charity Brown Griffin, a licensed school psychologist. “I think what we’re seeing is the status quo continuing to be maintained.”
Racial harassment and hate crimes were on the rise even outside the classroom. These incidents reached historic highs every year in the past decade, according to research from the Southern Poverty Law Center. A reported 11,126 people were victims of hate crimes in 2020, with more than 62% of these cases prompted by someone’s race or ethnicity, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The number of hate crimes against Black Americans — the largest victim category, according to the organization — increased by 49% from the previous year.
Some experts think that this led to a similar spike in behavior among children and adolescents.
“You saw on the news, on different outlets, people kind of modeling the racial discrimination,” said Brendesha Tynes, an education and psychology professor at the University of Southern California, who studies online racial discrimination. “Young people seeing that thought this is an OK thing to do around racial issues, right? This is how you behave toward people who look differently — towards Black folks.”
The phenomenon is more commonly experienced by Black students in predominantly white schools, said Griffin, an assistant professor of psychological sciences at Winston-Salem State University. Her research shows that Black students attending these schools are more likely to hear racial slurs used by white classmates and feel socially excluded.
“For Black students, many of them in these predominantly white spaces don’t feel affirmed,” she said.
When the pandemic shuttered in-person learning, it seemingly offered a reprieve from bullying. A recent study found that internet searches for school bullying and cyberbullying fell by 30% to 40% when schools switched to remote instruction in 2020. This trend continued into the next school year as well.
“We weren’t surprised to see school bullying go down,” said Andrew Bacher-Hicks, an assistant professor at the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University and the study’s lead researcher. “We were a little bit surprised to see the cyberbullying went down as well and at the same time, because we would have sort of expected maybe some of that bullying to shift online.”
Schools did see an increase in bullying when they transitioned to being in-person, Bacher-Hicks said, but it was still below historical levels in those school districts.
But switching to virtual learning did not stop Black kids — or educators — from being bullied, other experts argue, it merely changed how the bullying manifested. A Black superintendent in Washington state became the victim of “Zoom-bombing” after attendees during a virtual meeting muted his microphone and played audio of racial slurs on a loop. In Fort Worth, Texas, a group of high schoolers created a “N – – – – – Auction” on Snapchat so they could pretend to auction off their Black classmates.
These attackers were able to capitalize on behavior that had already been on the rise leading up to the pandemic. A 2015 study, co-authored by Tynes, found that 42% of minority youth experienced at least one discriminatory incident during their first year of high school. In addition, 64% of minority students said they experienced at least one “vicarious” discriminatory incident by the end of their first year, meaning they witnessed or heard about racist behavior. The most common incidents were either “people have shown me a racist image online” or “people saying mean or rude things about another person’s ethnic group online,” according to the study.
It’s hard to pinpoint why Black students are more likely to be bullied compared to other racial groups. But Tynes noted that her team’s research revealed how white children experienced race in a different way.
“White kids couldn’t even tell me what their race was. They can denigrate a Black person, but, in some cases, if you ask them what race that they are, they’re sweating and they can’t tell you that they’re white.”
The phenomenon can partially explain why the nation saw a spike in Black families choosing to home-school their children during the pandemic. The number of home-schooled Black children jumped from 3% to 16% from April to October 2020, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.
And while some families have undoubtedly found success with this method, it’s not a feasible option for most.
“Think about the level of privilege that is associated with having an occupation that allows you to work from home, as a parent, to be able to support your child’s learning,” Griffin said. “Or to be able to hire someone.”
Tynes suggests using social media settings to filter out what children see, and instilling pride and appreciation into one’s racial and cultural identity at home to combat the anti-Blackness they may encounter in the world. It won’t completely shield a child from the racism they may encounter at school, but it could help assuage the pain.
Online bullying is “sort of this permanent reminder of how people in your school feel about you,” Tynes said. “And so each time you go back online, that image is there, and it’s just permanent, right? Whether it’s on your phone or you’re carrying it around on your laptop. It’s always there.”