When a truck careened down a sunny Manhattan bike path and mowed down eight people on Halloween, the horror left the whole city reeling. But some communities had to brace for a second wave of fear to follow the initial trauma: the collective suspicion that Muslim Americans have come to expect in the wake of Islamist-inspired terror attacks, as racial hatreds and public panic reignite over “homegrown terrorism.”
The impact of this distrust starts early, as Muslim American children have come to expect a range of hostility from their own neighbors. An advocacy group, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has catalogued the types of anti-Muslim hate facing California’s Muslim students, revealing a pervasive culture of bigotry and anxiety from the schoolyard to the principal’s office.
According to surveys of 11-to-18-year-old students in the Greater Los Angeles, Sacramento Valley, San Diego, and San Francisco Bay areas in 2016, “Fifty-three percent of respondents report that students at school are made fun of, verbally insulted or abused for being Muslim.” A quarter of the respondents—the vast majority of which were students of color, mostly Arab or South Asian—said they had been victims of anti-Muslim cyberbullying, and “a shocking 57 percent of students view their peers making offensive comments about Islam and Muslims online.” A third of girls “reported having their Islamic head scarves tugged, pulled or being offensively touched,” an increase of 7 percent since 2014.
One of the most disturbing trends is an apparent backslide in the level of school engagement and the concomitant rise in isolation children feel as they become increasingly uncomfortable about displaying their identity. Fewer than 70 percent of respondents reported that they “feel welcome and respected in school,” down from more than 80 percent in 2014. A similar pattern of decline was seen in students’ saying that they “feel comfortable engaging in class discussions about Islam and Muslims.” More than a third say they simply do not participate in discussions on Muslims or Islam. This discomfort points to an underlying trend across American society in recent years: an atomization and fracturing of communities, in which demographic diversity expands, yet the divides of race, ethnicity, class and culture widen. The erosion of the relationship between Muslim students and their peers and educators is fraying the one environment in which diverse groups have a chance to interact in many regions.