Anywhere But Here
Imagine that in Germany, government officials and teachers decided to develop a special curriculum for schools that would seek to instill in their students an understanding of the horrors of racism and intolerance.
Now imagine that this curriculum never mentioned the Holocaust of European Jewry, or Germany's persecution of Romany, Slavs, homosexuals, persons with disabilities, or any of the other groups singled out by the Nazi regime. Instead, this curriculum focused on the legacy of racism and oppression in the United States. Slavery, Indian removal, Asian exclusion and Jim Crow laws, all of it presented in clear and convincing detail, but nary a mention of anything even remotely similar done by the German republic itself.
This, of course, would be absurd. How, after all, can a nation possibly instill an anti-racist consciousness in its citizens if it refuses to look at its own culpability and focuses only on the crimes of others?
Yet apparently studying racism in other nations, while resisting any mention of the same in your own country, is completely appropriate when the teachers and students are Americans. Here, it is acceptable to teach of the European Holocaust (and it alone) as evidence of man's inhumanity to man.
At least this appears to be the case in Tennessee, where the state has developed an adult education curriculum to foster "appreciation for diversity," to be taught to persons seeking their high school equivalency degree. The only example of intolerance mentioned is the Holocaust.
Please don't misunderstand. As a Jew, I can viscerally appreciate the importance of studying the European Holocaust, and I have no doubt about its ability to teach certain universal lessons about how low-level prejudice can develop over time into widespread persecution and even genocide.
But these lessons can also be taught by discussing any of a number of this nation's own crimes: crimes which go undiscussed in the new course, "Learning the Holocaust." So far as Tennessee is concerned -- and the U.S. Holocaust Museum which endorses the curriculum -- there is nothing to be learned from chattel slavery; nothing to be learned from the Trail of Tears, which began on the very territory where the Holocaust will be taught as if it were unique in human history. Indeed, the author of Indian removal, Andrew Jackson, made his home not fifteen minutes drive from the offices of Tennessee's Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which has promoted the new study of Nazi terror so as to, in their words, "foster an appreciation for diversity, as more and more immigrants and refugees move to Tennessee."
Which begs the obvious question. How can learning about the mistreatment of Jews and other European sub-groups have any effect on the attitudes that people in Tennessee have towards those new immigrants, almost none of whom are European, but who are mostly Latino or Asian?
After all, despite ongoing prejudice occasionally flung our way, Jews are, for all intent and purpose (at least in the U.S.) seen as whites, accepted as part of the grand schema of European civilization; viewed as intelligent, hard-working and successful. People of color, on the other hand, are still typified as lazy, unintelligent, and prone to crime. Making students acknowledge the humanity of a group of white people -- however much this group may differ from most of them in terms of religion and certain cultural traditions -- is a far cry from convincing them of the rights of non-white immigrants, who don't look like them, who might not speak the same language, and who are routinely viewed as taking white jobs and soaking up welfare dollars.
Put simply, inter-ethnic discrimination and oppression is different from racism. In the former, a common or similar skin tone allows all within that group to become convinced, if they were not already, of their common bond with others of that skin tone. But racism, by prioritizing certain outward characteristics as paramount to categorization, makes such recognition infinitely more difficult.
That the students being subjected to this highly-selective curriculum include a large number of immigrants learning English for the first time, and poor women coming off welfare (enrolled in the state's Families First program) is especially ironic. After all, those students could teach a class on intolerance and discrimination without any help from their teachers, to say nothing of having to dig back to the Second World War.
These students, a disproportionate number of whom will be of color, might think it odd that the only bigotry the state feels like addressing is that done by folks a half-a-globe and a half-century ago. I guess there is nothing to be learned from these students, who have faced English-only legislation, anti-immigrant crackdowns, and welfare cutbacks thanks to widespread stereotypes and a constant drumbeat of rhetoric against the so-called underclass.
According to those teaching the course, they want students to think about how people could have stopped the Holocaust. Such a discussion is historically interesting to be sure, and could even be helpful in the present if linked explicitly to existing discrimination in the U.S. and how present-day residents of this country might intervene to prevent oppression here. But of course no such bridge between the past and present or between the European and American experience is deemed necessary.
Though it is too soon to determine whether or not this course will ultimately usher in a new era of tolerance among the good people of Tennessee (or other states, which are looking to copy the model), early evidence indicates that the program is serving what are likely the real interests of its designers: namely to reinforce the notion of American exceptionalism. As one graduate of the program recently explained, the class had made her more grateful than ever to "live in the land of the free."
I guess in this land we only wonder in amazement at how truly awful some of this planet's other inhabitants can behave. We are shocked, simply shocked to learn of such things.
Tim Wise is an antiracist essayist, activist and father. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org