Column: Racism in O.C. schools is nothing new — but it’s surprisingly diverse

The entrance to Laguna Hills High School in Laguna Hills.
The road leading to Laguna Hills High School in Laguna Hills. A parent released a video capturing a Laguna Hills student shouting racist slurs at a Black basketball player during a basketball game with a rival school on Friday.
(Gustavo Arellano/Los Angeles Times)

It’s an Orange County ritual as reliable as the Los Angeles (yeah, right) Angels underachieving.

High school students hurl racial and ethnic epithets at their peers, openly and without shame. At sporting events, after school, during lunchtime. Against rival schools or fellow classmates. There’s outrage and condemnation, and administrators and parents vow: “Never again.”

And then it happens again.

Prep racism happened when I was a student at Anaheim High School in the mid-1990s and our teams played wealthier, whiter schools. Such taunts continued when my brother was a basketball player a decade later. I covered many such cases during the 2010s for another publication. And I’ve shaken my head in disgust as these incidents seem to have escalated in recent years in frequency and stupidity, as proof of them appear on social media, usually uploaded by the instigators themselves.


There were the San Clemente High fans in 2019 who yelled anti-Black, anti-Latino and anti-gay epithets during a football game against visiting San Diego Lincoln High. That same year, photos and videos emerged of students from Newport Harbor High in Newport Beach and Pacifica High in Garden Grove forming swastikas with red plastic cups and throwing out Sieg Heil gestures in two separate incidents.

Just this past fall, a Yorba Linda High student posed with a sign that stated, “ur dad is my GARDENER” before a game against archrival Esperanza High. All of these embarrassments served as prelude to the latest one yet, which happened Friday.

The photos that appeared this weekend on social media from a party in Orange County have sparked widespread outrage and disgust.

March 4, 2019

The location: Portola High in Irvine, where the Bulldogs boys’ basketball team hosted the Laguna Hills High Hawks. Video shot from the visitors bleachers clearly capture audio of a student yelling, “Where’s his … slave owner? Who let him out of his chains? Who let him out of his cage? He’s a monkey!” while a Black guard for Portola shot free throws.

No one reprimanded the idiot. Instead, a friend laughed and said, “You always say the wildest [stuff], bruh.”

The two weren’t done. In another video, the same racist student continued to scream racist insults. His friend finally stepped in. “You can’t curse,” he said. “They’re going to kick you out.”

After the mother of the Portola hoopster spread the videos on social media — and only after this happened — Laguna Hills High officials spoke up. Boys basketball coach David Yates tweeted, “In no way is this condoned, nor is it the culture of the program or school!” Saddleback Valley Unified School District Supt. Crystal Turner, who oversees Laguna Hills High, called the diatribe “unacceptable” and said the offending student was “counseled and disciplined,” per my colleague Gregory Yee.


What happened at Portola High is drawing national attention as yet the latest last gasp of old, nasty Orange County, which has now been majority minority for nearly 20 years and voted against Donald Trump in each of his presidential runs. Hate doesn’t have a home here anymore.


But in many ways, hate is more insidious in Orange County than ever before.

Time was when you could blame all youth racism on white suburbanites and their snotty children. Laws and social mores kept O.C. schools officially segregated through the 1950s. As Asians and Latinos moved into Orange County during the ensuing decades, white students mirrored the views of their parents and subjected minority teens to terrible abuse.

That’s what my mom and her siblings went through when they attended the long-gone Fremont Junior High School in Anaheim during the 1960s. Even to this day, my aunts and uncles will tear up if I ask about the trauma — beatings, putdowns and unsympathetic adults — they endured.

You still see such clashes bubble up in schools where white students remain the majority. But it sure isn’t hate’s exclusive domain anymore.

Take Portola and Laguna Hills high schools. In my high school days, the former didn’t exist and the latter was overwhelmingly white. Today? Stats compiled by the California Department of Education show that white students are a minority in each school — Asian students make up the majority of Portola’s student body while Latinos comprise a plurality at Laguna Hills High.

The identity of the offending Laguna Hills High student isn’t known yet. He could be of any race or ethnicity or creed.


But it doesn’t really matter, because Orange County hate is real. An Orange County Human Relations Commission report found that hate crimes increased by 35% in 2020, the largest jump in at least a decade, with a 19-fold increase in attacks on Asian Americans and Black people as the most targeted racial group.

Hate lurks in O.C.’s soul, a latent pathology ready to flare up under the right circumstances. It’s so real that hate percolates into the minds of students whose predecessors were once victims.

By the time I got to Anaheim High School, the student body was over 90% Latino. We assimilated Mexican American students slurred our recently immigrated classmates as “wabs,” an epithet unique to Orange County that essentially means “hillbilly” and remains in use.

In 2012, Latino students dressed up as stereotypical gang members while allowing white students who sported Border Patrol T-shirts to mock arrest them, and then dismissed their actions as a “joke.” Minority students were part of the antisemitic actions by Newport Harbor and Pacifica High students. In 2020, two Latina students at Bolsa Grande High School in Garden Grove uploaded video of themselves assaulting Asian American classmates and yelling “coronavirus” while Vietnamese students wore traditional attire during a school assembly.

Orange County Human Relations Chief Executive Alison Lehmann Edwards says a more diverse Orange County doesn’t translate at all into a less hate-filled place. “There’s a lot of monolithic communities, and we’re still fairly well-segregated,” she said. “There’s increasingly less opportunity to interact with people, and it’s easy to choose not to as well.”

Her organization offers a program called Bridges, which runs year-round diversity workshops to O.C. middle and high schools. She points out that the recent controversy over the implementation of ethnic studies in California high school curriculum has led to angry adults and politicians assailing the worth of such antiracist programs.


“They’re not often civil or respectful conversations,” Lehmann Edwards said. “Young people pick up on that. That’s why education is important. Let’s not fear our past. Let’s fear the future we can create if we don’t know that past.”

If any school system in California needs ethnic studies or critical race theory, it’s Orange County. But too many don’t want it. Allowing instructors to break down privilege and systemic racism to impressionable young minds would signify something’s wrong here — and we can never admit that.

That’s why, as Lehmann Edwards pointed out, so many parents show up at school board meetings to rail against the very mention of ethnic studies but stay silent as racism courses through our classrooms again and again.

So don’t be surprised the next time prep racism bubbles up in Orange County. These episodes write themselves, like some bigoted “Mad Libs” game. Just leave blanks for the school, the year and the group targeted.

The rote, ineffective apologies, of course, always remains the same.