The efforts of a young Massachusetts teen-ager to end stereotyping and prejudice -- first in her own community and now across the nation -- demonstrate how powerful young people can be in the battle against hate in America. The response of a Salem High School student, who yelled an epithet at the end of a "No Place for Hate" program Monday, regrettably shows how much such efforts are needed.
While the most visible results of long-entrenched hatreds are found in hot spots around the globe, where old enmities perpetuate war and terrorism, communities throughout the United States are not immune from bias, prejudice and hate. Recently at Salem High School, a black student was subjected to racial and sexual harassment, and other students in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys whose ethnicity, religion, national heritage, sexual orientation or physical and mental abilities are not the same as the majority of students have suffered verbal and physical assaults.
Intolerance weakens America
But the attitudes and behavior of intolerance weaken the fabric of U.S. society and undermine our bedrock values of freedom and democracy and our well known commitment to human rights.
Because if children here are mocked or taunted because they are Muslim or Jewish or Hindu, then we are no different from those we condemn in Northern Ireland, for example, where Protestant militants terrorized Catholic schoolgirls. If Asian-Americans, or Arab-Americans or black Americans are denied the opportunity to live their lives in peace, what can we as a nation have to say to nations like Serbia whose ethnic animosities led to ethnic cleansing?
Hanna Hoy, a 13-year-old from Hamilton, Mass., first became involved in a drive to end hate when she wrote to all the churches in her affluent hometown asking them to get on board the "No Place for Hate" campaign, a program created by the Anti-Defamation League to fight hatred and discrimination.
Although more than 50 Massachusetts' communities passed resolutions to take part, her own community declined participation.
So she took it upon herself to change the minds of those who didn't want to get involved.
Making a difference
Her efforts led to an appearance on the "Today" show and to invitations, like one to come to the Mahoning Valley earlier this week, to let young people know they can make a difference -- which one adult told her she couldn't do.
Rabbi Simeon Kolko of Ohev Tzedek-Sharei Torah congregation in Boardman who invited the Hoys to the Valley and went with them to Salem High School said that it's important to acknowledge where problems exist and to want to deal with them.
"Being part of a community means taking responsibility for the community," he said. "Issues about acceptance and tolerance have to be dealt with."
If young people can unlearn the hatreds they've learned -- too often, from their parents -- the resultant tolerance for others will make the United States a better place for all Americans.