A few months ago, the northern New Jersey suburbs experienced a distinctive episode of teenagers flirting with antisocial behavior. First, a 16-year-old boy hijacked a public address microphone at a Turnersville Wal-Mart and announced, “Attention Wal-Mart customers. All black people, leave the store now.” A few weeks later, a 14-year-old girl did the same thing at a Whole Foods grocery store in tonier Edgewater.
Both teens were detained by law enforcement authorities and charged with a handful of misdemeanors including “bias intimidation.” This didn’t prevent other copycats from blurt- ing out similar giggling idiocies in other public places.
As you’d expect, local media muttonheads stroked their chins about racism on the rise. In fact, the behavior seemed more like bad taste than bigotry. Few blacks live in either Turnersville or Edgewater — so it’s unlikely that the announcements were borne of actual racial strife. More likely, the kids were doing something they knew was gauche to emulate the likes of radio outrage artist Howard Stern or the meta-morons featured on the popular TV show “Jersey Shore.”
On their journey to adulthood, teenagers test limits of socially acceptable behavior. Tied in with this testing is an impulse to provoke emotional response in adults and authority figures. (Some people get stuck on these impulses and continue provoking authority long after their teenage years.) Any parent who’s raised teens will agree that the best way to respond to the limit-testing is to ignore it; and, when the testing can’t be ignored, to convey disappointment and mild annoyance rather than emotional intensity.
By making a cultural fetish of race matters — with laws prohibiting vaguely-sketched behavior like “bias intimidation” — we practically invite undisciplined kids to make racial taunts. We need to grow up about race. And then the ill-mannered teens might grow up, too.