ESTHER CEPEDA: Ignorance of history fuels hatred in America
CHICAGO -- The sickening photo of dozens of Wisconsin high school boys apparently giving a Nazi salute sparked so much media outrage that even Gov. Scott Walker shook his head and said, “They’re just a bunch of idiots.”
The well-dressed boys were photographed outside a county courthouse last spring at prom time, and about two-thirds of them had their right arms raised in what looks -- to anyone with eyes in their head -- to be a Sieg Heil salute. One student also appears to be making the upside-down “OK” hand signal that white supremacists use to mean “white power.”
To be fair, the parent who took the photo -- who also owns a photography business -- said that he had simply asked the boys to wave “goodbye” for the camera, and that the final result had been misinterpreted. However, several news outlets also reported that some of the boys meant it, possibly as a joke.
Har. Dee. Har. Har.
One student at the school, Jordan Blue, told media outlets that some of his classmates were goofing around. He told CNN that the episode was “a scary moment, and it was very shocking and upsetting.”
But what’s even more upsetting is that some of Blue’s fellow students at Baraboo High School felt otherwise.
Nate Mathis-Vargas, a white father of two girls who attend the high school, spoke to the podcast “It’s Been a Minute with Sam Sanders” and said that he was appalled by the picture. He also said that he was concerned for his daughters -- not only because they go to school with people who either hold white-supremacist beliefs or think it’s a joking matter, but also because many students didn’t even understand the problem.
He discussed the incident with his daughters and found that “they weren’t aware of a lot about the Nazi army itself, so they didn’t understand what that meant, which was more shocking to me than the picture itself,” Mathis-Vargas said. “It’s like: How did they not teach that? How do they not know that?”
Sadly, those kids are not alone in their ignorance.
A study released last summer by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, which pursues restitution for victims of Nazi persecution and their heirs, delivered the alarming news that 11 percent of all Americans and 22 percent of millennials hadn’t heard of the Holocaust or weren’t sure what it was.
The study also found that 31 percent of all Americans and 41 percent of millennials believe that 2 million or fewer Jews were killed in the Holocaust. (The number is actually around 6 million.)
Forty-one percent of all Americans and 66 percent of millennials cannot say what Auschwitz was (it was a Nazi concentration and extermination camp), and 52 percent of Americans wrongly think Hitler came to power through force.
As amazing as it may sound, only 10 states -- New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Rhode Island, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Connecticut and Kentucky -- have legislative requirements about the teaching of genocide and the Holocaust in their public schools, according to the New York-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect.
It’s not perfect -- not all of those states have a commission or task force to keep genocide education comprehensive, rigorous or up to date. Still, it’s something, and another 18 states have told the center they are committed to passing or strengthening their legislation.
In the absence of such education, Mathis-Vargas’ daughters were angry about the backlash over the photo, because they didn’t understand what was wrong with what the boys had done. All they saw, according to Mathis-Vargas, was their school being attacked and their friends demonized and even threatened. “It opened my eyes about what I need to do as a parent on talking to my kids about these things,” the father said. He added that he hoped the school would start offering more instruction to prevent these kinds of misunderstandings in the future.
Hopefully, the “future” won’t be too late. Already, hate crimes in America have spiked by 17 percent over 2017, with a corresponding 37 percent increase in anti-Semitic attacks, according to FBI statistics.
Ignorance fans hatred. On Election Day, a Holocaust denier and white supremacist won 56,000 votes in the western suburbs of Chicago. Thankfully, he lost. But his candidacy is proof that America needs some serious schooling before it relives history’s worst mistakes.