You’ve likely seen the story about a picture of a group of high school boys at a prom in Wisconsin raising what looks very much like a Nazi salute (the photographer who took the picture – a parent – said he just asked the boys to raise their hands innocently). That this incident captured a lot of attention is understandable because it seems to encapsulate so much of our national moment. There is what looks like clear anti-Semitism, privilege, and what seems to be the shamelessness of the act. This has resulted in the inevitable politically charged back and forth of debate. Did this school district have a long-simmering problem with intolerance? Did these kids view this as a “joke”? Is this being blown out of proportion? Hopefully, an investigation will shed light on the truth.
But this is, of course, not an isolated incident. We have seen shocking, violent, even murderous, attacks on Jews, African Americans, and many other groups that have been marginalized in the history of this nation. These attacks preceded the current administration, but the statistics show that rates of violence and hate crimes are on the rise, likely – or at least in part – the result of a climate of division and bigotry emanating from the President himself.
I am not naive to the level of hate that courses through this nation. There are some who will be unredeemable on this front. We must leverage the full power of law enforcement to combat the rise of white nationalism and violent hate groups.
But such tools, even if successful, would leave much of the problem unaddressed. I firmly believe that much of what we are seeing is the sprouting of seeds born from ignorance. We have thankfully lived in an era of relative peace. The horrors of World War II and the marches of the Civil Rights Era are becoming ever more distant – to say nothing of the fight over the evils of slavery, or women’s suffrage, or the broken treaties with Native Americans, and so many other outrages. The echoes of these injustices still resonate, but they are all too easy to ignore when we fail to adequately teach them to our children.
We need a national movement of Never Forget. It needs to be injected into our school curricula and embraced by artists, musicians, Hollywood, everyone who can turn facts into the impact of stories. We need to speak out and hold adults accountable who facilitate cultures of intolerance. And we need to find ways to integrate with each other more – maybe a national public service requirement for young adults. I worry that even those who consider themselves tolerant aren’t adequately versed in the history of hatred. And you know what they say about those who cannot remember the past…