Children in the Age of Trump

debbie olson's picture

Regardless of what side of the political spectrum a person lands on, there is no denying that the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States has had a profound, and many would argue, a negative effect on American culture. One of those effects is a disturbing rise—and in some ways an acceptance of—racist language and race-based violence. The United States has always grappled with its history of racism, and with the election in 2008 of Barack Obama, the first African American president, many felt the US had reached a “post-racial” place in its history, a transcending (but not erasure) of the stain of slavery and Jim Crow. Cultural awareness, acceptance, and celebration of freedom and opportunity for all seemed to peak with the election of Barak Obama. Yet, that pinnacle of the American Dream—a man who is the son of a white single mother and a black Kenyan father, modestly raised, becoming President of the United States—also ushered in a dangerous backlash that emanates from the hedonistic underbelly of American society. This backlash against diversity and intellectualism, against immigrants and people of color, against difference in all its forms, is the calling card for a disturbing rise of white supremacy and the white fear of losing a perceived majority voice in the United States. It is in part this fear of an imagined white disempowerment that resulted in Trump’s election in 2016.1 And with his election followed an equally disturbing rise in nationalism, populism, secrecy, oligarchy, and a regressive turn towards fascism and nostalgia (“make America great again!”) for an imagined past.2

The rise in racist attacks has not been limited to adults. Unfortunately, children are both participating in and falling victim to a growing number of troubling racist attacks. For instance, shortly after the presidential election in Snyder, Texas, at the regional volleyball competition, students from Archer City, Texas, chanted, “Build that wall! Build that wall!” and brandished Trump campaign signs to the opposing team from Fort Hancock, Texas, which is made up of mostly Hispanic students.  When a Fort Hancock student got close to the stands to retrieve the ball, they were catcalled with “go back to Mexico!” and “build that wall!” As the Fort Hancock superintendent Jose Franco observed, “What troubles us is that no game official, an official at the venue, even the officials at the game, school officials, nobody stood up to put an end to this.”3  In December, 2016, at Warrensburg High School in Warrensburg, Missouri, the almost all-white student body “turned their backs while the other team, made up of black and biracial students from Kansas City, was introduced, while one of them held up a Donald Trump campaign sign.”4  And at the Royal Oak Middle School in Royal Oak, Michigan, a predominantly white school, a middle school student, Josie Ramon, recorded the white seventh grade students chanting, “Build the wall!” and banging on the tables at lunch in the cafeteria, traumatizing the school’s Hispanic students. The video5 was posted on social media, and has been viewed millions of times, becoming for a short while the flagship visual for post-Trump racism.6 Some of the most recent attacks include a group of Connecticut high schools students who “[held] ‘Trump’ signs, [wore] ‘Trump’ clothing, and shout[ed] ‘Trump!’ at times during a basketball game against a rival school.”7 More recently, nooses (a reference to America’s horrific history of lynching) have appeared in various schools—Crofton Middle School, Crofton, Maryland; at Gotha Middle School, Orlando, Florida; and a doll was found hanging by a noose at Wakefield High School in Raleigh, North Carolina.8 Ben Wofford, writing for Rolling Stone, suggests that the racist outbursts happening in schools across the country are indicative of white parents who as “Trump voters. . .fear a changing world, [and] the target of their dread lurks not only at the ballot box, but at the bus stop.”Their children hear these disturbing ideas at home and become emboldened by the Trump-induced climate of hate for the Other that they witness on TV and on social media. What is more disturbing than these children’s behavior is the seeming lack of correction of these racist, xenophobic behaviors from school officials or even parents. According to an online survey of over 10,000 educators, the election of Trump was followed by a significant increase in racist taunts or general race-based tensions on school campuses.10 All of these incidents raise questions about the trajectory of American childhood during the age of Trump. What our children learn today will profoundly shape their socio-political and geo-political views in the future. What do American children learn as they witness the rise in racism, fundamentalism, fascism, attacks on immigrants, people of color, Islam, and the LGBTQ community? Will the intellectual, philosophical, and sociological gains made over the past decades be enough ammunition for our young people to counter this rising form of deculturalization, which can be defined as a concerted effort to nullify and render moot [or mute], cultural pluralism?  As Rebecca Ullrich and Leila Schochet argue, “there should be no doubt that young children are absorbing Trump’s rhetoric and the impact it has on communities around the country,”11 a situation that should raise alarm bells for parents.

There have been other historical moments of racial tension and transition in modern history that had profound effects on the children who witnessed them: for example, children’s experiences during slavery22 and during Jim Crow in the South.  Jennifer Ritterhouse, in Growing Up Jim Crow: How Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, explains that “Black and white children came to understand themselves in relation to one another, both through their interaction and by assimilating the complicated lessons of their parents and other adults.”13 By teaching very young children to “other” black and brown children, Southern adults taught white children the “power-relations process by which a viable relationship between dominant white and subordinate black—and therefore ‘race’ itself—was renegotiated on a daily basis.”14 These children in turn carried those racist lessons into their adulthood. Their children, however, began to question the validity of such notions of race at the same time African Americans and their children began challenging racism, dual forces that helped bring about the Civil Rights Movement, which, for the most part, eventually changed culturally entrenched Jim Crow racism. 

The integration of schools following Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, is one such specific moment when children became both witnesses to and participants in white hysteria over race, as seen in the famous photo’s from Little Rock’s Central High school and the Little Rock Nine.15 Schools became sites of cultural tensions and transformations when top anthropologists like Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, and Margaret Mead16 soundly advocated a move towards diversity. These and others in the fields of social science and psychology began publishing work that “challenged the American value systems, supported cultural relativity, and bolstered calls for greater tolerance.”17 These key works helped reform school policies in ways that sought to change a generation’s views on race by changing the ways children learn to interact with each other. They believed that “diverse people form diverse opinions on topics such as race and suggested the malleability of human thought meant that different cultural beliefs and socialization processes could produce very different norms and behaviors.”18 And they were right. Colonial powers had used the same type of “re-education” to deculturalize African and Native American children, for example. Such educational tactics involved forcibly removing children from their homes and moving them into restrictive boarding schools; educating them solely in European or American history, effectively denying their own legitimate history; requiring the sole use of the language of the colonial or dominating power, thereby suppressing local languages; ridiculing local art in favor of European art; and promoting European music while denouncing—in some cases, outlawing—“tribal” music.19 These and other such methods worked during the colonial era to indoctrinate entire cultures to believe in the White West’s “superiority” over dark peoples. In much the same way, the United States attempted to reverse the course of racism through raising diversity in education, sometimes through extreme methods. 

Following the Brown v. Board of Education decision that declared the “separate but equal” doctrine discriminatory, another Supreme Court case in 1971, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, put in motion federal efforts to forcibly integrate schools throughout the country, not just in the South. One of the integration strategies used was busing, where students in predominantly white communities were bused to schools in predominantly black communities. Conversely, black students were bused to white schools. The reaction from parents was less than enthusiastic, particularly from white parents who did not want their children exposed to the dangerous “riff raff and project rats” they believed made up the black schools.20 The ultimate goal of busing was to create “greater equality of opportunity for historically deprived groups.”21 Parents of both groups—white and black—disapproved of busing, and many blamed busing for the “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs.  And while the goal of desegregation was to achieve “racial balance” in America’s schools and increase educational opportunities, few scholars of busing agree on whether or not these goals were achieved.22 But while many have criticized busing as a “failed” system, few have acknowledged its very real benefits.23 One of the more significant results of those desegregation efforts of the 70s is the undeniable “social and educational benefits” of interracial exposure for children.24  And while busing continued throughout the 70s, to decline rapidly by the end of the 80s, the interracial exposure it ensured had lasting positive effects on children and their understandings and attitudes about race, which in turn helped create our lushly textured, multicultural society.  

What this evolution in children’s attitudes about race suggests is how important it is today to continue the multicultural and interracial educational tradition that began with forced busing. As Harry T. Edwards argues, “in thinking about the 50 years since Brown, it is important to be clear about one thing: American society could not have achieved meaningful progress in race relations without race-conscious actions” like busing.25 President Trump and his followers have led the devolution of public sphere rhetoric to new lows of intolerance, racism, anti-intellectualism, and white supremacy. One must ask what effect this may have on children today who witness such race hate and intolerance? Instead of creating a better, safer world for America’s children, they must now negotiate racial violence and intolerance on a scale not seen since the 60s. According to a report by Maureen B. Costello, writing for the Southern Poverty Law Center, Trump and his follower’s rhetoric has created “an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflam[ed] racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported. . .Other students have been emboldened by the divisive, often juvenile rhetoric [during] the campaign. Teachers have noted an increase in bullying, harassment and intimidation of students whose races, religions or nationalities [had] been the verbal targets of candidates on the campaign trail.”26 Jaweed Kaleem, writing for the Los Angeles Times, calls the Trump Effect a “virus” infecting some parts of the country. And Mica Pollack, author of Schooltalk: Rethinking What We Say About — and To — Students Every Day, explains that “Children and youth hear the words adults hear. . .[and those words] shape what young people think about themselves, each other, adults and their country. From Donald Trump. . .young people have heard distorting claims about Mexicans as rapists to deport and distrust, of Muslims as violent anti-Americans who should be banned from entry to the United States, of African Americans as people living in hellish inner cities, of women as people to grope without permission, and of violence toward critics as admirable passion, to name just a few examples.”28 And this xenophobic, racist and sexist rhetoric, combined with a return of very public acts of racism, do not bode well for our children or their future.

As we can clearly see in today’s fractured American society, the rise of the “us vs. them” discourse, historically used to unite a country against another country or culture (like during the Cold War), has instead become a rallying cry of division within American culture, often along racial lines. Our children, who have otherwise been fully integrated in diversity through school, media, and social networking, are now subject to incidents of race-hate reminiscent of the pre-Civil Rights and Jim Crow eras. And the reaction of adults, or the lack of corrective reaction, can have serious and long lasting consequences. Much like when parents explain to a child that the movie they just watched wasn’t “real,” so too must parents—and especially educators—step up to immediately counter such racist rhetoric with reasons why such words are unacceptable and demeaning to all. Adults in authority must also correct children who make racist comments or commit racist acts. Counter-narratives, based on truth and fact, must be as pervasive in our children’s lives as the barrage of “alternative facts” seems to be. Children are resilient, and can come away from horrible circumstances and events with a resolve to change the circumstances that led to those events. Let's work to ensure that our children come through the Trump era with a strong resolve to move away from racism, xenophobia, and sexism and towards a progressive, creative, innovative, richly diverse, and compassionate society.28




1. Though Trump won the electoral college vote, he lost the popular vote to Hilary Clinton by 2.8 million votes.

2. See Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, (New York: Basic Books, 1992) and Zygmunt Bauman, Retrotopia, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017)

3.  Darren Hunt, “North TX Students Shout Racially Charged Comments at Ft. Hancock Volleyball Team.” KVIA news, 16 November 2016.

4. Des Bieler, “Trump Sign Used to Taunt Opposing Basketball Team Causes School District to Apologize.” The Washington Post 15 December 2016.…l-team-causes-school-...

5. The video can be seen here:

6.  Kelly Wallace and Sandee LaMotte, “The Collateral Damage After Students’ “build a wall” Chant Goes Viral. CNN 28 December 2016.

7. Dave Huber, “Chants of ‘Trump!’ during basketball game ‘racially motivated’; students face possible discipline,” The College Fix, 3 March 2017. 

8. Neal Augenstein “Hanging Noose at Maryland Middle School Leads to Hate Crime Charges,”, 25 May 2017, ; “Noose Found Hanging Outside Orlando School” NY Post, 15 March, 2017, ; “Doll Found Hanging by Noose at Wakefield High School,”, 30 May 2017, 

9. Ben Wofford, “Inside the Trump Effect: How One School District is Fighting Hate as School,” Rolling Stone, 23 March 2017, 

10. Read the full study here: 

11. Rebecca Ullrich and Leila Schochet, “When President Trump Speaks Out, Our Children are Listening,” Center for American Progress 27 January 2017.

12. See Wilma King’s, African American Childhoods (2005) and Stolen Childhood (2011).

13, Jennifer Ritterhouse, Growing up Jim Crow: how Black and White Southern Children Learned Race, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006), p.17.

14. Ritterhouse, 6

15. A history of Central High and the Little Rock Nine can be found at the Little Rock 9 Foundation website: See also, A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School by Carlotta Walls Lanier & Lisa Frazier Page;  Lessons from Little Rock by Terrence Roberts; The Little Rock Nine: Struggle for Integration by Stephanie Fitzgerald.

16. See Franz Boas’ The Mind of Primitive Man (1911); Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) and, with Gene Weltfish, the pamphlet “The Races of Mankind” (1943); Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) and Growing Up in New Guinea (1930) were the first studies to look at childhood in a cross-cultural context.

17. Rebecca de Schweinitz, If We Could Change the World: Young People and America’s Long Struggle for Racial Equality. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009) p. 74

18.  Schweinitz, p.74

19. See Margaret Szasz’s Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1783 (1988); Lawrence James’ Empires in the Sun: The Struggle for the Mastery of Africa (2017).

20. Ronald P. Formisano, Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991). p.122.

21. Stephen J. Caldas and Carl L. Bankston III. Forced to Fail: The Paradox of School Desegregation, (Westport, CT: Preager, 2005). p.7

22. See Christine H. Rossell, The Carrot or the Stick for School Desegregation Policy. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) and Donald J Armor, Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995)

23.  Stephen J. Caldas and Carl L. Bankston III argue that forcing children from “neighborhoods with daily shootings. . .ravaged by drugs and violence” to white neighborhoods results in white children learning bad behaviors (7). Donald J. Armor concludes his study Forced Justice: School Desegregation and the Law, that “there is little evidence that changing a school’s racial composition alone, while leaving the educational program unchanged, has any appreciable impact on the academic performance of minority students, and there is nearly unanimous consensus that it does not benefit white students academic performance” (231).

24. Rossell p.187

25. Harry T. Edwards. “The Journey from Brown v. Board of Education to Grutter v. Bollinger: From Racial Assimilation to Diversity,” Michigan Law Review 102.5 (2004): 947.

26. Maureen B. Costello. “The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on our Nation’s Schools,” The Southern Poverty Law Center,, accessed 3 June 2017 

27. Jaweed Kaleem. “ ‘There’s a virus in our country’: The Trump Effect, and the Rise of Hate Groups, Explained.” The LA Times, 30 May 2017, 

28. Mica Pollock, quoted in, Valerie Strauss’ “The Frightening Effect of ‘Trump Talk’ on America’s Schools.” The Washington Post, 6 November 2016. 

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