Roni Ellis-Burns, principal of McGaugh Elementary School, Seal Beach, Calif., Sept. 11, 2018 Credit: Parent photo from USA Today

Editor’s note: This op-ed originally ran in USA Today.

My local principal called an ‘anti-American thug.’ The Make America White Again crowd needs lessons in patriotism and kindness.

“As Orange Goes,” so goes the future of American politics. That was political scholar Karl Lamb’s thesis in his 1974 book presaging the rise of Ronald Reagan and the evolution of Orange County, California as a national battleground for the November election.

I grew up in Orange County, and read “As Orange Goes,” as a college freshman. I’m still here, experiencing the last gasp of ugly bigotry that permeated the county of my youth.

This month in my school district, Los Alamitos, Roni Ellis-Burns, an elementary school principal, publicly called Colin Kaepernick an “anti American thug” for exercising his First Amendment right to peacefully protest.

While school superintendent Sherry Kropp expressed concerns, rather than immediately repudiate Ellis-Burns’ ignorance and racism, she praised her as “a spectacular principal.” More than 2,500 parents didn’t buy it and signed an online protest. How did the district respond? With a Mister Rogers message that said, basically, we don’t say mean things about our friends and neighbors.

Disturbing history of bigotry in my city

Really? The vocal core of bigots in my hometown, Los Alamitos, has a history of not just saying mean things, but taking offensive, repugnant, ignorant and racist action to further its  “Make America White Again” agenda.

Let me recount several incidents that show a disturbing pattern. At a Los Alamitos High assembly in February, a non-white student knelt during the national anthem, prompting a white football player to sprint from the crowd and drag the protester to his feet while students cheered.

At a demonstration following Donald Trump’s election, white Los Alamitos High students angrily chanted, “Build the Wall” while administrators stood by. In a district that is about half nonwhite, no effort was made to teach tolerance, no public apology issued, no one sent to detention to watch a Mister Rogers marathon.

Local bigots also have a history of attacking gay students. In 2013, as a 15-year-old gay student was leaving English class, another student beat him in front of hundreds of others, some of whom filmed the beating and posted it online.  A lawsuit filed against the district alleged “one teacher employed by Los Alamitos Unified School District published the video in her class, humiliating plaintiff. Thereafter, a school psychologist verbally abused plaintiff and blamed him for the beating.”

In 1992, six months after moving to Los Alamitos, I was pregnant with my first child, thinking about what school she’d attend.  When Nazi skinhead literature decorated with swastikas was shoved in high school lockers painted in bigoted epithets, I began to have doubts about the vaunted Los Alamitos district I’d heard so many Realtors praise.  A month later, it happened again.

The principal at the time, Carol Hart, had her own Mister Rogers moment: “The students want ethnic harmony on the campus,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “They feel very strongly about that.”

Where do students learn repugnant values? Maybe from the City of Los Alamitos?  Before passing the nation’s first anti-immigrant, “anti-sanctuary” law earlier this year, the city council allowed supporters to curse opponents, including members of the clergy, and yell, “Sit down!” “Disgusting!” “Go back to where you came from!

None of that tops the city’s poster child for bigotry, Dean Grose: former mayor, former councilman and current candidate for city council. After Barack Obama’s election, Mayor Grose sent an e-mail depicting a watermelon patch growing on the White House lawn to a group of friends, including an African American businesswoman in town, “as a joke.”

Though he eventually resigned, Grose retained many supporters who reelected him to City Council, and in 2013, Grose posted on Facebook: “Uniting America against Obama’s regieme [sic] one AK47 at a time!”  He’s running again in November for city council as a “consultant” and chair of the Military Affairs Committee at the Los Alamitos Joint Forces Training Base.

Kaepernick protests a country that falls short 

The “Make America White Again” crowd is cut from the same red, white and blue cloth. When you wrap an ignorant bigot in a flag and label it patriotism, you have what Mark Twain called “the last refuge of the scoundrel … the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.”

These people do not represent the city, county or country where I live. My dad, a Marine Corps colonel, fought in two wars to defend Americans’ right to protest peacefully. Kneeling during the national anthem does not make Colin Kaepernick an anti-American thug. It makes him an African American protesting a country that has yet to live up to its promise of equality and justice for all.

It’s time to tell white nationalists and bigots here and in communities across the country that enough is enough: Go to time out, watch Mister Rogers reruns and read the Constitution. Maybe when they’ve seen all 895 episodes and read the Bill of Rights, they will have learned how to apologize and how to teach our children what it means to be real Americans.

Susan Paterno is director of the journalism program at Chapman University. Follow her on Twitter: @SusanPaterno

Opinions expressed in editorials belong to the authors and not Voice of OC.

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