This Black Teenager's Bullying Case Shows Racism Is Alive and Well in America's Schools


Yet another incident of racist bullying on a school-operated bus has been caught on video. This time, the incident happened at Bloomfield Hills Middle School near Detroit.

Phoenix Williams, a 13-year-old black student, told WDIV-TV two bullies began harassing him on a bus ride to a school field trip after looking up racial slurs on school computers.

"I'll give you a piece of candy if you call Phoenix a dirty nigger," one of the two said. They proceeded to throw his hat into the back of the bus and threatened to break his phone if he told teachers what had happened. Williams caught the entire incident on video.

As a result, both of the students were suspended. But after a few days, they returned to school with no further punishment.


According to his mother, two adult parent chaperones and a driver were on the bus but failed to notice the incident.

"I would like for both of the students to be expelled, and for the staff and the parents and the students to also go through training in diversity," Williams said. "I would like to see no tolerance for racism or racial intimidation, things of that sort."

Racism is a real problem in schools: Bullying is disturbingly common in American schools; statistics suggest that up to a third of students between grades six and ten have encountered bullies. However, educators fail to see the vast majority of bullying and little of it is reported, meaning the only thing researchers are totally sure of is that it happens with alarming regularity.

Racist bullying is particularly harmful. One study conducted by Ohio State University graduate student Lisa Williams concluded that it has measurable impacts on test scores, especially among academically talented minority kids. 

Schools themselves often act in systematically racist ways. According to the Department of Education, black students are punished at disproportionate rates compared to their white peers; the trend begins as early as preschool. 

One review by Virginia Tech sociology professor Anthony A. Peguero highlighted research arguing that "the experience of bullying in boys' lives is perceived as normative and tolerated by teachers and school administrators" and that educators seem more tolerant of bulling against minority students than white ones.

John T. Bledsoe, Library of Congress

Why you should care: A quick suspension doesn't seem to fulfill the school's obligation to protect black students. What happened to Williams requires more than a one-off punishment. It requires a dialogue aimed at training teachers, students and parents alike to prevent and recognize racist behavior and take it seriously.

"We've gotten pretty good at spotting racists in America, and we're okay at punishing them too," Mic's Zak Cheney-Rice wrote about a recording of Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brothers shouting racial slurs on a bus of their own. "But the structures and systems that produce the racists still elude us. Instead, they embed themselves in our psyche and masquerade as the natural order."

Kids deserve better than racist harassment from their peers at schools, and they certainly deserve a better response to it than a slap on the bullies' wrists.