Social Studies Lessons

White nationalists carry torches on the grounds of the University of Virginia. Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share via REUTERS

Every day for most of the last week, I have been shocked by what I see on the news. I cannot believe that in 2017, in my country, we are not only dealing with white supremacists, but we are also dealing with an administration that had to be goaded into speaking out against them. After giving an obviously canned speech, the administration then went back to mansplaining Nazi’s. Are we in some sort of a reality warp that we’re not aware of?

In 1970 the school I attended covered both the Civil War and the Holocaust in their 8th grade social studies classes. The Civil Rights battles of the 60’s were still being fought and we studied them as current events. We also studied our political system and how it worked. Basically, we studied pretty much everything that has blown up into current events again.

I can clearly remember the teachers long, bleached blonde hair, her knee high white patent leather boots, and skirts that were far shorter than would be allowed today. She was a cheerleader for the Kansas City Chiefs and the juxtaposition of her appearance with the horrific details of the subjects we were studying made for a striking contrast.

The school was about 50% Jewish and almost every single one of the Jewish students in that class had family stories to tell about the Holocaust. One person had grandparents who were killed in one of the concentration camps; another person had an aunt who bore the tattoo of another camp; someone else had family who had escaped with nothing but the clothes on their backs. These personal histories brought the facts we were studying to a deeper level of horror.

Not that the history books we studied weren’t horrifying enough. I clearly remember picture after picture of skeletal people with dull eyes staring out of the pictures. There were pictures of the mass graves that my young mind had trouble processing.

There were no people of color in the school at that time. The school was deep in the lily white suburbs of the city and busing was a year away from becoming an issue. However, we saw images on the news every night of the battle for equality that was being fought. People had fire hoses turned on them, attack dogs unleashed against them, and were regularly beaten with sticks and clubs for protesting peacefully. All of this was raw reality, not something we just learned about in books.

So what does all of this have to do with the events of the last week? The ostensible reason given for the original rally in Charlottesville was for the fascists and alt-righters to assemble to protest the removal of a statue of General Lee of the Confederate army. Even if we ignore that this occasion was merely a good excuse to get all the unhappy white supremacists together to protest how rough they have it, let’s look at the issues behind the removal of the statue and what I was taught in 8th grade.

What I learned about politics: The removal of the statue was voted on by a majority of the citizens of that city. You see, in all but our Presidential elections, which is a whole other issue, that’s how our republic works. You have an issue, a solution is put on the ballot, the citizens vote and the majority vote is the deciding vote. Period. People who live outside the city have no say in what the results of that vote was.

What I learned about the Civil War: The South seceded from the United States under the flag of fighting for States rights. I have since learned that is pure, unadulterated, bullshit. No matter how much adolescent girls and redneck boys like to romanticize that era, the South wanted to secede from the country because they had an economy built on enslaving an entire race of people for no reason other than the color of their skin.

We were taught that General Lee was an educated, erudite, learned man. That may have been true, but he still fought to keep black people enslaved. I really don’t care what moral or ethical conundrum this may have caused him, at the end of the day, he fought for something that was wrong.

What I learned about the Civil Rights movement: We were taught to look at people for who they were. We saw the battles and how ugly people were being towards each other. I can remember being honestly confused by the idea that someone was “less than” merely because of the amount of melatonin in their skin. It never made sense.

In the last 10 years or so, I have been as guilty as any white person in America in that I used to think that the black people I knew were exaggerating or looking for problems when they would talk about how they were treated differently. Unfortunately, the last three years have stripped that comfortable illusion from my eyes. Are things better than they were in the Jim Crow era? Maybe, but debatable. However, equality is still not what we’re living with. As long as there are doors I can walk in without having to prove I belong, but the person behind me with a different skin color has to show identification to walk through that same door, racism still exists.

As far as what’s happening in our country today, I seriously cannot wrap my head around so much hate existing in our country. The Daily Stormer, a hate-filled alt-right website, ran an article on the site, which called the car plowing through protesters opposing the white supremacist march in Charlottesville an act of “road rage” and called victim Heather Heyer a “fat, childless 32-year-old slut.” The article devolved from there, spewing hate like a scene from the movie “The Exorcist.”

When I first saw a re-posting of the article I thought it had to be a hoax; no one would ever seriously print anything so hate-filled. I was wrong, this is a real site and the content is actually typical of the vile slime they spew. Since that awful post I saw the website has lost their hosting and domain.

Back in my uncomfortable desk in 8th grade, I thought that everything we were studying was history. History we needed to know, but that we were way too smart and educated to repeat. I never, ever, thought we would be fighting those battles again.

I remember, during that year and many times in the decades that followed, wondering how I would’ve reacted, what I would have done, in those dark, hate-filled days. Unfortunately, I now get to answer those questions. We all need to remember that tomorrow’s history is today and we all need to stand stand-up for the beliefs we want to be remembered for.

What are your thoughts?