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Teaching About Racism

Stop Ignoring America’s Hidden Holocausts

Q: What do Germany and the United States have most in common?

A: Histories of brutality and genocide.

But only one of us is trying to avoid a repeat performance.

Everyone knows that Germany has a history of factory murder.

During WWII, Germany conducted the systematic extermination of 6 million Jewish people and 5 million non-Jewish people. We call this period the Holocaust.

However, few Americans know their own country has a similar history of brutality.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the US allowed legal chattel slavery of human beings stolen from Africa. These people were taken from their families and sold into generational servitude. Approximately 600,000 Africans were taken to the United States and sold as slaves. By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the country.

Treatment was severe. Beatings and rapes were commonplace. Punishments included whipping, shackling, hanging, burning, mutilation, branding, and imprisonment. Most captive laborers weren’t allowed literacy or to congregate in large groups. Much of our economic prosperity was built upon the blooded and beaten backs of these people.

But that’s not all.

Almost since its inception, the United States practiced outright genocide against Native Americans. A population of approximately 18 million has dwindled to only 5.2 million as of 2010.

Arguments explaining this drastic plunge in population are numerous and heated. Native Americans had no immunity to European diseases, which was exploited by “gifting” them smallpox-infected blankets. After 1830, tribes were pushed west of the Mississippi, often with brutal, forced marches including the infamous Trail of Tears, which alone caused 4,000 casualties.

Over time, the U.S. forced indigenous peoples into small plots of reservation land where they were coerced to change their hunter-gatherer life-style to a more agrarian culture. It didn’t work. Mass starvation was common. It wasn’t even until 1924 that all Native Americans were granted US citizenship.

No matter how much the depopulation of Native Americans can be attributed to natural causes - racism and murder played a large role.

So both Germany and the United States have much in common. Which is responsible for a worse atrocity? That’s irrelevant. Murder is murder. Genocide is genocide.

Each has a dark history to face. But each chose a different path to do so.

In Germany, there is a policy of education. They don’t hide from their past. They teach it.

The Holocaust is a mandatory subject in all schools.

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Students begin studying the Nazi persecution of the Jews between ages 12 and 15. Genocide pervades the curriculum - not just history. It is taught in classes on literature, religion, ethics, biology, music and art. Science classes disprove racist theories, art classes study works produced by Holocaust survivors. Students engage in long-term educational projects that often focus on these issues. They continue to learn about the Holocaust outside the classroom. Annual field trips are scheduled to memorial museums such as Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, or Sachsenhausen.

But that’s Germany.

The United States deals with its dark past much more haphazardly.

There is no such systematic educational approach to either American Slavery or Native American Genocide. While neither subject is completely ignored, there is no national push to ensure anything but a superficial knowledge of these events.

American school children know there used to be slaves; they may even know the Native Americans weren’t treated so nicely. But they don’t know nearly the scope and fallout of these events.

Slavery is one thing. The Civil Rights movement is another. They may have some vague connection, but little is taught about the generations of nationally-endorsed racist laws that kept African Americans from voting or exercising the same freedoms available to White people. And after the Civil Rights movement!? Nada.

Likewise, students learn there used to be a whole civilization of Native Americans before Columbus arrived. They might learn a bit about a few of the skirmishes between the U.S. government and indigenous peoples. But genocide!? That is usually reserved for WWII when it could equally be applied to events at home.

We need to face our wrongs so that we don’t repeat them. We still perpetuate the same transgressions against our fellows - albeit less openly.

NFL franchises think racial epithets make good team names. Our courts strip away civil rights protections. Police still murder Black teens.

If the United States is serious about its ideals, we need a comprehensive educational program that emphasizes American Slavery and Native American Genocide the same way Germany emphasizes the Holocaust.

So I’d like to make a suggestion.

If the United States is serious about its ideals, we need a comprehensive educational program that emphasizes American Slavery and Native American Genocide the same way Germany emphasizes the Holocaust.

Starting in middle school, students should learn about both tragedies throughout the curriculum. Literature courses should teach texts such as Beloved, Native Son and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Biology classes should do experiments to discredit racist theories of eugenics. Music and art classes should examine the rich heritage produced by these peoples.

Schools should institute field trips to former slave markets, plantations, reservations, battle sites and massacres. We would need museums of equal quality to those explicating the Holocaust. No more fond reminiscences of the Antebellum South. Instead show in detail the inhumanity practiced by our forebears.

The point is not to rub our children's noses in the brutalities of the past. We must teach the value of tolerance. Therefore, we need a comprehensive program of ethnic studies to explicate the stories, histories, struggles and triumphs of people of color on their own terms.

It is essential this occurs at all of our schools - not just those made up of mostly minority students. Our children need to know that it’s okay to be who they are. There’s nothing wrong with being non-White just as there’s nothing special about being Caucasian. We’re all people. We all deserve respect, acceptance and love.

Isn’t that really one of our most cherished ideals?

We hold these truths to be self evident - that all men are created equal.


If our actions matched our words, maybe we’d finally defeat our racist past.

Steven Singer
Gadfly on the Wall