There is a surprising lack of understanding about the history of intolerance in America. The result is an atmosphere that is ripe for violent hate groups and populist bigotry.
In the decade following the Second World War, there was deafening silence in Germany when it came to teaching young people about the holocaust. When Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first Chancellor, was asked if there should be an event marking the 10th anniversary of the fall of the Nazi dictatorship, he famously replied: “You don’t celebrate your defeats.” It was only in the 1960’s that the rebellious children of the war generation began to ask difficult questions like, “what did grandpa do during the war”. When millions of Germans tuned into a US miniseries about a fictional Jewish family during the war, many viewers expressed shock that they learned more from that film than all their years in German school.
In America, there is a similar silence about our country’s history of intolerance. According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, only 2% of high school seniors could answer a simple question about the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. In sixteen states, there is no requirement to provide any instruction on the civil rights movement and in another 19 states the requirement is minimal. This lack of basic understanding has led some to argue that far-right extremism is a thing of the past and that the threat from these groups is waning. In fact, the opposite is true. Reports show that the number of hate groups in America is dramatically rising – from 892 in 2015 to a historic high of 917 in 2016 with violence from far-right extremists far exceeding that of leftist fringe groups.
More troubling is when the president of the United States says that there were “very fine people” marching with the white supremacists in Charlottesville and suggests they were simply trying to preserve their history. This shows a surprising ignorance about exactly what that history is. Historians point out that many Confederate monuments around the south were erected during a time when there was deep resistance to the civil rights movement and to remind the population of the racial hierarchy that once prevailed.
A history of intolerance
In 1896, in Plessy v. Ferguson, the US Supreme Court decided that it was constitutional for states to segregate citizens based on race. What followed was the era of Jim Crow where states, like Alabama, passed laws making it illegal for blacks and whites to play card games together. Nebraska nullified marriages between whites and ‘non-whites’ (defined as any person with more than an eighth Black, Chinese or Japanese lineage) and in Maryland, a white woman who gave birth to a child with a black father could be sentenced to a minimum of 18 months in prison.
But it wasn’t just in the south where discrimination was institutionalized. In many northern communities, restrictive real estate covenants were commonplace. In these contracts purchasers agreed never to sell their home to a “person of any race other than the white Caucasian Race.” This meant no Blacks, Latinos, Asians, or Jews. Restrictive golf clubs were also commonplace well into the 1980’s.
Anti-Semitism in the US is by no means a thing of the past either. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), anti-Semitic incidents – including assaults, vandalism, and harassment – increased 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017.
Watching the events of Charlottesville unfold, it was shocking to see how hate groups promoting racism and violence had gained such a visible platform in America. It is difficult to wipe out this kind of ignorance entirely, but I don’t believe that the indifference and passive support that exists around these groups would be possible if more people had a better grasp of our nation’s history of intolerance.
In the early 1990’s, Sweden found itself in a similar situation with many young people lacking sufficient knowledge about the Holocaust. The country at the time was in the middle of a deep economic crisis with hate groups and extremist violence on the rise. However, before the end of that decade the government started an information campaign called, “Living History” to provide educators and the general public with facts and information about historic racism and anti-Semitism in Europe. In 2003, the project was made into a permanent national agency called, The Living History Forum.
In America, we also need to have a deeper conversation about racism, anti-Semitism and bigotry. Part of that conversation means talking about the uncomfortable parts of our history. This is especially important at a time when a majority of Americans think race relations are getting worse – a trend that accelerated in the lead up to the 2016 elections. We need to make school curriculum about the history of intolerance and the movements that fought against it a priority in our schools. We need to provide young people, as well as our civic leaders, with objective facts so that we can have an honest and constructive conversation – not one based on myths and fear.