It’s Monday. How a racist Instagram account turned a Bay Area community against itself. Plus, California is rethinking its future as its population stagnates.
A private Instagram account with just over a dozen followers might not seem like something that could cause much trouble.
But the discovery in 2017 of such an account, run by students, with racist posts shattered a Bay Area high school and its town. Friendships were destroyed, lawsuits were filed and the trajectories of lives were changed forever.
In a gripping account in The New York Times Magazine, Dashka Slater chronicled what happened at that school in the Alameda County community of Albany. The years of fallout from the Instagram account — including sit-ins, families fleeing town and a court case that was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court — illuminate how Americans think about race, social media and punishment. I highly recommend reading the full article.
I spoke to Dashka, who is based in the Bay Area, about her reporting and what it reveals about young people and hate incidents. This isn’t her first foray into this world: In 2017, Dashka published “The 57 Bus,” a nonfiction book about a teenager who identifies as agender — neither male nor female — and was set on fire by another teenager while riding a bus in Oakland. That book began as a New York Times Magazine article.
Here’s my conversation with Dashka, lightly edited for length and clarity:
How did you come to this story? Why did it appeal to you?
I had just finished writing “The 57 Bus,” and I had no intention of having teenagers and hate be my beat. But I was at an advance signing event for that book, and someone in the signing line mentioned what had just happened in Albany with the discovery of the racist Instagram account. As I began to investigate, I found that same sense of disturbed attraction, where I thought both: “I don’t want to spend any time at all on this very disturbing, upsetting story” and “I want to know everything about this, and I want to understand all the issues that are kind of lurking beneath the surface about race and gender and justice and social media and shame and accountability.”
This story takes place at Albany High School. Does it feel to be specific to the Bay Area? Or do you think such racial tensions could explode anywhere?
Well, it does happen everywhere. In 2019, the Southern Poverty Law Center sent a survey to school districts asking about hate incidents on campus for K-12 schools. And in the fall of 2018 alone, there were almost 3,300 separate incidents.
While I was reporting this story, one of the first things I did was set up a Google Alert for any time the words “school” and “hate” appeared together online. I get a Google Alert every day that has about eight things in it. Usually one or two of them are something similar to what happened in Albany.
What I heard a lot from people in Albany was, of course this happened in Albany, with its history of redlining and restrictive covenants and Ku Klux Klan activity in the 1920s. And, as I say to people, that’s true all over. That’s true in my city of Oakland, which is much more diverse than Albany, but also has that history of racially restrictive covenants and redlining and Ku Klux Klan activity. So this is very much an American story.
And, of course, there were all the particulars: it being a small town, it being in the liberal Bay Area where nobody thought this could happen, it having happened three months after Donald Trump was elected, when everybody was still kind of in a state of shock and wondering about the future of this country. All of those were contributing factors to the way it played out. But this does happen everywhere.
It has been six years since this happened, and, in some ways, Americans are probably thinking about race now more than they ever have. So I’m wondering if you think the hate incidents among young people are on the decline. Is that Google Alert still regularly pulling up these stories?
I always get a little lull during the summer, but last week I got my first alert of a hate incident since the spring. One of the things that have happened is that white nationalist groups have become emboldened, and they are very good at using social media to radicalize, indoctrinate and attract young people, particularly boys, particularly white and Asian boys. And so I don’t see this, unfortunately, stopping this week or next week.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Susan Weikel Morrison, who lives in Fresno. Susan recommends Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond:
“The park commemorates the legacy of the U.S. home front effort to rapidly and abundantly supply the military during World War II and highlights especially the contribution of the Rosies, women who filled equipment construction jobs so that men could fight in the Pacific and Europe.
The attractive bayside park includes an informative visitors center; a preserved World War II Victory ship, the Red Oak Victory; and a restored Ford assembly plant that helped build combat vehicles during the war.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
The Times is continuing to report on the devastating wildfires in Lahaina, Hawaii. If you or someone you know has been approached by someone looking to buy land on Maui after the fires, and you are able to, please share your story.
And before you go, some good news
A matchmaking effort brought Emily Dobies and Sal Steiner together — and yet they weren’t the couple being set up.
Dobies was trying to orchestrate a match between Steiner and a mutual friend. “I was like, ‘Sal’s perfect — for everyone,’” Dobies told The Times.
She and Steiner met in 2012 at a cafe in San Francisco, Coffee Bar, where they both worked. Dobies had long harbored a crush on her co-worker, though she never thought Steiner would share her feelings.
But in 2016, after the matchmaking attempt had taken place, something shifted. “You’re the most attractive, magical person I’ve ever met,” she told Steiner.