The fallout over allegations of racism at a recent Orange County high school football game erupted on social media over the weekend, reflecting the broader tension gripping the country in the Trump era.
The disputed incidents occurred at Friday night’s contest between Aliso Niguel and Santa Ana high schools, during which Santa Ana Principal Jeff Bishop became upset by what he saw as racially tinged intimidation by Aliso Niguel students.
In Facebook posts after the game, Bishop described signs expressing support for President Trump and proclaiming “We love White” and “Build the Wall,” a reference to Trump’s pledge to build a barrier along the border between the United States and Mexico.
“This is no different than our national discourse, but this is one principal who is not going to stand for it,” Bishop told The Times on Sunday.
The enrollment at Santa Ana High is almost 99% Latino; Aliso Niguel’s student body is majority white.
Bishop’s posts sparked much debate over the weekend about what exactly happened. Some Aliso Niguel supporters said that Bishop unfairly maligned the school and that the students’ behavior was not racist. Others declared it a misunderstanding, saying some students arrived at the game in patriotic colors to commemorate the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
“We are a multi-cultural school. Sure do we have outliers just as your school does? Sure, but for you to call our school a racist school is horrible to do to our students and our players,” one Aliso Niguel supporter commented on Bishop’s post.
The principal began the social media storm by commending his team, which played hard in a 42-21 defeat.
“It would have been easy to blame the racist welcome the ‘Saints’ received as they walked into the stadium and read the posters referencing — Trump, ‘We love White,’ ‘Build the Wall’ and various other politically and racially-charged statements,” he posted after the game. “What I love about OUR coach is that at no time did he allow this unchristian hate from the Wolverine stands affect HIS team.”
Bishop said later that he saw some of the offensive signs and was told by others about insensitive or racially tinged chants and taunting.
He became more concerned, he posted, when he heard chants of “USA! USA!” following touchdowns by the Aliso Niguel team.
Aliso Niguel “was not playing against Germany or MEXICO. They were playing my kids, 22 minutes down the freeway,” he wrote.
His football coach warned Bishop right away that he wanted to remove the team if things turned ugly. Bishop concurred and sought out Aliso Niguel’s principal in the second quarter, telling her he was prepared to pull his team from the field if she did not act.
“After talking to the principal and watching her and her assistant principals snag the signs away from these disrespectful and out-of-control students — it seemed to help,” Bishop posted. “Afterwards, it became more about football, athleticism and a healthy competition.”
The two administrators hugged, Bishop said later. He also said he didn’t want to suggest that a large number of Aliso Niguel students are racist.
Orange County, once a bastion for conservative Republicans, has become strikingly purple, a focus of Democratic efforts to retake the House of Representatives in the November elections. Former President Obama was stumping the region over the weekend with that purpose in mind.
The two schools and their communities reflect some of these demographic differences. Santa Ana is one of the nation’s densest cities. At Santa Ana High, about 1 in 4 students is learning English as a second language and the poverty rate is about 86%.
At Aliso Niguel, about 56% of students are white, which would be considered diverse in many places. About 19% of students are Latino and 12% Asian. The poverty rate is 18%. Only 3% of students are learning English, and of those, Farsi is nearly as likely as Spanish to be their first language. The high school is in Aliso Viejo, a master-planned community of 50,000.
The Aliso Niguel principal, Deni Christensen, declined to be interviewed Sunday but told the Orange County Register that the flag theme was intended to honor the anniversary of 9/11.
An Instagram post on @anhswolverines, which is affiliated with the school, urges fans to wear red, white and blue but does not mention the Sept. 11 commemoration.
Christensen also told the Register that her staff removed three signs. One read, “We’re going to Trump you,” while another said, “Trump 2020.” A third sign read, “Bring back Obama,” she said.
Her administrators did not see a “Build the Wall” sign, “but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that there were students in the parking lot with signs we did not see,” Christensen said.
Bishop’s outspokenness sparked some backlash on Facebook.
“Why would you be trying to create something out of nothing? As a principal I would think you would be better than this,” James Patrick Owen, a former Aliso Niguel football coach, commented. “I was sitting in the press box for the game, the whole game and NEVER heard anything you are claiming!”
He added later: “IT WAS OUR ‘RED, WHITE AND BLUE’ GAME. We have one every year since 9/11/2001, just like 90% of ALL high schools across the country remember the 9/11 victims and celebrate our patriotism this weekend! Know your facts! SMH.... stop feeding off the left’s narrative that ALL WHITE PEOPLE ARE RACIST.”
Christina Clark, the parent of an Aliso Niguel football player, defended the integrity of the football team, which is ethnically diverse, but gave the benefit of the doubt to Bishop and other witnesses: “Some ignorant teenagers who need [to be] educated, and reprimanded by school officials were involved. That behavior is reprehensible. And it makes me so sad that your players experienced that.”
In the current era, a pro-Trump statement can become a racially charged dog whistle, said Jeffrey Dickman, a county trail and bikeway coordinator.
“No matter how folks wants to downplay the chants, the signs, by the home team, this is racism. This is how folks express racism in 2018,” Dickman commented on one of Bishop’s posts. “Aliso Viejo should act quickly to disavow the hate messages from its students and insure our beloved symbols are distinguished from its opposites.”
Members of the Santa Ana High community rallied behind their school’s principal.
“Mr. Jeff Bishop, you rock,” wrote Lupita Sandoval, a grandmother who graduated from Santa Ana High. “Thank you for standing up for our kids and our community.”