When a group of African American high school students in California disrupted a showing of "Schindler's List" with laughter, the national reaction was pure Rorschach. Why did the students laugh? What did they mean by it? Nobody knew -- but legions of adults were poised to react anyway.
The troubling results of that reaction -- mapped out recently by my colleague Christine Spolar in a long report on the aftermath -- are a morality tale on the dangers of the current hair-trigger mind-set toward anything that might qualify as cultural insensitivity.
The problem's not just that the original event was, as Spolar points out, neither as clear nor as racial as it appeared in a prompt national rash of media portrayals. It's also that students praised for their "exemplary" response to the controversy, which included a public apology and gained them a "Courage to Care" award from the governor, have in fact apparently been left with lingering feelings of bitterness and perplexity.
The initial story had enough elements to send it straight into the file on black-Jewish tensions. The students had been brought to the theater on a field trip for Martin Luther King Day. Patrons in the movie theater stood and applauded when the manager stopped the film and threw the rowdy kids out.
But of all the profferred explanations, actual antisemitism is the one that's hardest to reach from the facts. The high school's dean, who is black, said kids whose real lives are saturated with violence often laugh and catcall at screen violence to hold their own anxieties at bay. The kids themselves told Spolar they always talk and shout back at movies, regardless of content -- an assertion likely to be accepted by anyone who shares movie theaters with teens. The teacher, apologizing in his turn, thought it was his fault for not preparing the students -- for taking them to a long, heavy, serious movie on a vacation day when they had expected a carefree field trip.
You hear echoes of both explanations in local observations of a related phenomenon: that even at the Holocaust museum here, teenage visitors of various races occasionally act up among the horrors. Sometimes, probably, it's nerves; other times, as in Oakland, lack of preparation. "Some schools put this on their tours as if it were the Air and Space Museum," says David Friedman, a local Anti-Defamation League official. "You can make the same mistake with 'Schindler's List.' They think it's an easy way in, and it's not." Friedman says the ADL doesn't see any point in making an issue of such incidents, on the theory that "punishment will harden rather than educate. Sometimes you can win the short-term battle but lose the long-term one."
The kids' resentful comments about being misjudged, when contrasted with the enthusiasm about their public response, sound doubly ironic in light of this principle. After the outpouring of praise for the way the Oakland community confronted the issue, Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote a column contrasting the students' exemplary behavior, and their apology, with the confusion and defensiveness that followed the infamous Khalid Abdul Muhammad speech in New Jersey.
And yet that contrast itself offers a distant, frightening echo of this episode and the dangers that lurk around its far edges. The corrosive effect of the Muhammad speech is still worsening despite prompt, universal, totally justified repudiations of Muhammad by almost everybody. Muhammad's subsequent speech at Howard University -- which was preceded by the awful call-and-response led by law student Malik Zulu Shabazz about "the Jews" -- was the sharpest possible moral contrast with the Oakland incident. It totally merited adult denunciations, and it got them; leaders of both black and Jewish groups actively sought them. Columnist Richard Cohen wrote criticizing Shabazz sharply and quoting the shouted exchanges at length. Howard President Franklyn Jenifer contributed a column implicitly criticizing the event.
Anyone who thinks it worked should glance through the current issue of Howard's student newspaper, the Hilltop. This contains no fewer than four furious attacks on Cohen for daring to criticize Howard. One is a chilling cartoon of "the Jewish man," with skullcap, issuing anathemas upon Howard students from above.
Sure, they're young. But the swiftness with which this kind of thing can deteriorate should make people doubly nervous of the hair-trigger response that sets off the spiral of repudiation. The limitation of repudiation as a strategy is practical, not moral: Eventually there arrives a stage when it doesn't work, when every attempt to combat bigotry is brushed off as evidence of insensitivity in its turn. When it comes to bigotry and the ability to pull back from the brink of it, nobody represents anybody; nobody can vouch for anybody else's freedom from prejudice. If declarations could do the hard work of conversion, of reaching and changing minds person by person, we wouldn't be having this problem.
The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.