Disrupting Systemic Bullying in America

When we think of bullying, most often we conjure up an overgrown kid throwing his weight around in school, menacing others and spreading fear like a little schoolyard terrorist. The bullying experience is so ubiquitous in American society that movies have been made about sensitive smart kids, who suffer at the hands of bullies, growing up and getting their revenge by rising to a level of power, marrying the “hot” girl, or some version of both.

Seldom do we think of bullying as the abuse of a significant power differential, like adults leveraging their positions of power over others subjected to their decisions. But, this is the most common thread of bullying that weaves together the systemic symptoms we witness across America. And we learn it first-hand early on in school.

Regardless of whether we attended a public or private educational institution, bullying seems to be ingrained in most environments. And it isn’t constrained to the student population. In many schools, it is deeply embedded in the power structure. Consider the number of sexual relations that occur between teachers and teenage students who get caught. Apparently, the extraordinary amount of such illicit activity by adults in positions of power and authority, and its devastating impact on families of both parties involved, doesn’t deter the practice.

Consider the number of young adults hurt by hazing experiences. We only know about injuries and deaths. We cannot measure the mental and emotional impact on youth seeking to fit in and be accepted into fraternities, sororities and sports teams. They willingly subject themselves to sometimes torturous games of power wielded by immature young adults.

Consider the number of athletes who lives are forever impacted after suffering abuse from a coach or mentor or someone else abusing authority over their lives. USA Gymnasts has a long history of systemic abuse of its athletes, which has again been spotlighted due to the trending #MeToo Twitter hashtag. Gold medalist McKayla Maroney recently accused her team doctor of molesting her for years.

Consider that more than 10 million girls and young women attend college each year. Many experience aggressive bullying behavior by boys and men, which typically results in sexual assault. The numbers are staggering. According to the latest reports, 1 in 4 female students enrolled in college will experience a sexual assault. That’s 2.5 million. It’s so prevalent that a documentary was made about it (The Hunting Ground).

Consider how helpless minority youth feel in a society that thrives on bullying kids. Teachers and counselors are in positions to determine that a black child with high test scores isn’t college material; and decisions made without consultation with either child or parent establishes a downward trajectory for the course for that student’s life. Many black and Hispanic students are forced into the “school to prison pipeline.” We forget that pipeline exists due to adults abusing authority over children.

Bullying is a longstanding American tradition. Symptoms of this core problem manifest in myriad ways. For example, the forced racial segregation of people and communities is an outcome of bullying by the federal government and its henchmen working in the financial sectors of society.

Detroit is one of the nation’s largest metropolitan victims of systemic bullying. A city once known as America’s “Arsenal of Democracy” during WWII boasted a population that was 90 percent white with an economy growing so fast it attracted people from all over the country looking for work. That included poor black Americans fleeing the south. But they were all quarantined, crammed into small segregated sectors of the city, and economically starved. A race riot in 1943, in the middle of WWII, was based on public and private sector bullying of these people. Another riot in 1967, during the Civil Rights Movement, resulted in 67,000 whites abandoning Detroit that same year. The following year, another 80,000 departed taking with them the wealth of the city, which caused lasting economic devastation for generations. Today, Detroit is 82 percent black and trying to recover from decades of deliberate degradation through Mayor Mike Duggan’s Inclusive Growth strategy.

A mere 49 years since Dr. Martin Luther King’s final outcry and America continues to ignore the pleas of adults and children trapped on the weak side of a systemic power differential. Every day we exemplify systemic bullying in how we treat Americans at the lowest level of the socioeconomic ladder under color of law and authority.

Consider the backlash by wealthy white men who “own” the teams in the NFL. They decided as a collective group that professional athletes on their teams, most of whom were those black children relegated to failing schools and economically deprived communities, should not sully the NFL pre-game ceremonies with their sideline protests that point to consistent continuation of the “shameful condition” that Dr. King railed against. The commissioner and owners are cheered on by the President of the United States, who presides over the “shameful condition” and ignores the constant outcries emanating from them. These men exemplify the American bully who embraces a willful ignorance of systemic problems that they have the capacity to address but choose to ignore, thereby sustaining the problem and their power differential.

America has a bullying problem. It manifests in myriad ways but the overarching impact is the same. The weak suffer abuse by the strong. Ironically, the systemic nature of abuse embedded across institutions and industries in America requires complicit cooperation by the weak to cover up abuses by the strong. We see evidence of weak adults covering up the misdeeds and immoral behavior of adults in positions of strength. Stories ultimately emerge that shine a light of public scrutiny on News Media, Hollywood, the Christian Church, Public Schools and Higher Education, Corporations and even our three branches of government.

If we, as a nation, stop feeding our children the Magic Meritocracy fertilizer that grows our self-serving egos, and take a long introspective look in the mirror, we might find some flaws in our great nation that need our attention. And if we cared less for the American bully and cared more about uplifting America’s downtrodden, perhaps we would find that the bully’s protective support will collapse. After all, the sole protection of the bully is surrounding himself by a fortress comprised of the weak, who sacrifice their own integrity to serve and protect the strong.


Mike Green is co-founder of ScaleUp Partners, a national consultancy specializing in inclusive strategies to scale up local economies and bolster regional competitiveness. Mike has 20 years of award-winning media experience. He is a 12-year veteran of the US Navy. Reach him at @amikegreen2 or mike@scaleuppartners.com.