A photograph of a group of Riverside teenagers posing with a Nazi symbol in front of a Confederate flag that began circulating on social media last week has prompted backlash from students and parents.
The photo shows eight Martin Luther King High School students — some smiling — with a Confederate flag and a Trump 2020 banner. One of the students is holding a representation of a swastika. Another is flashing a hand gesture tha white supremacist groups claim represents the letters “WP,” for white power, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
The image, which was taken off-campus, was circulated among the student body last week. The situation has sparked fear and anger on campus, principal Michael West said.
“At this time in our country, the frank reality is that political and social views are strongly held by individuals,” West said in a video circulated Monday. “Individual views, while people are entitled to them, may be in direct conflict with those of others, our school and our district values.”
He suggested that teachers and school staff set aside time to talk with students about “diversity, tolerance, respect and how to use social media in a positive way.”
The school administration this year created an equity committee tasked with developing programs and events aimed at improving respect and racial harmony on campus. The school has also started a multicultural leadership class and is organizing what it calls “synergy days” to help students recognize and respect their differences, but also find value in and appreciation for their similarities, West said.
“This teachable moment will not be lost on us,” he said.
It is not clear whether the eight students in the photograph will face disciplinary action.
Timothy Walker, the Riverside Unified School District’s assistant superintendent of pupil services, said he could not discuss any possible punishment, citing privacy rights. He said the district is conducting an investigation.
“We’re trying to bring the community together. This is an issue of feelings out there in homes and communities that are brought to school,” he said. “We try to focus on educational programs and support our kids in a social, emotional realm. Part of that is to support them when controversies occur.”
Of MLK’s 3,000 students, the largest portion — 38% — are white, according to recent data from the California Department of Education, with Latino students making up about 36%, and Asian and black students just over 8% each.
Gray Mavheria, who is black and has two children in the school, told the Press-Enterprise that these are not new issues for the campus. His children have been referred to as “cotton picking” and have been told to sit at the back of the bus, he said.
“I looked at the picture and said, ‘Who does this?’” he told the newspaper. “I call it ‘Hell High School’ because of what they’ve put my kids through and other minority kids through.”
A report released Wednesday by the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism showed an increase in white supremacist propaganda in 2019. The report showed 2,713 cases reported last year, which include the distribution of racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBTQ fliers, stickers, banners and posters. That number is more than double what the center recorded in 2018, the report states.
While the report showed propaganda touched every state except Hawaii, the highest levels were centered in 10 states, including California, data show.
The Riverside photo is the most recent in a series of incidents involving Southern California schools.
In May 2019, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District investigated a series of overtly racist messages shared among young people, including students from Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, in a private Instagram group.
One group member asked whether anyone wanted a souvenir while the person was in Alabama and Mississippi, noting, “I’ll get you a real confederate flag.”
Another person in the group then asked: “Do they still sell black people down there?”
The person taking the trip responded: “If they do, I’ll get everyone a new plantation worker.”
The same school made national headlines months earlier when a group of students at a party posed with red plastic cups arranged in the shape of a swastika as some stood with hands outstretched in Nazi salutes.
Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, said the photo and others like it are meant to be a “bonding experience for young people who are ignorant and are trying to send a message to a changing society.”
“At a time when over 40% of Americans say whites are under attack, these young people are sending a shock message that they’re still relevant, and the biggest reverberation you’ll get is when you hook into tribal prejudice,” Levin said. “Some of this is youthful rebellion, but don’t kid yourself: It’s also another example of the sociopolitical mainstreaming of white supremacy and Nazi symbols.”