White supremacist ideology is dangerously alive in younger generations. And the fight against teaching students about race and racism in schools is signaling to them that they don’t need to care.
In a matter of minutes at a supermarket in a mostly Black area of east Buffalo, New York, a shooter ended the lives of 10 people. Among them: Pearly Young, 77, who handed out food to the needy; Aaron Salter, 55, a former police officer; and Katherine Massey, 72, a writer who pushed for civil rights. Three people were injured.
Add one more to the list of lives that were thrown away. If the suspected shooter is found guilty, he could face life in prison for what authorities have called a hate crime.
It appears that the plot to kill innocent minorities started long before the Saturday afternoon attack. The suspect looked for Black neighborhoods on the internet. A screed was found online that is believed to be his. The writing contains alarming and hateful messages about minorities and information about altering a firearm. He had already stated that he would kill others and himself in response to a school assignment. For that, he was sent to a psychiatric hospital, but released days later.
Why were signs that he was a danger not more closely monitored and acted on? And how does our society keep missing that signs of hatred among younger white Americans (who are rehashing the kinds of attacks common during and before the civil rights movement) are real threats? How is it that white supremacist ideology is still so dangerously alive in a generation that is supposed to embody hope, progress and change?
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Teaching about race and racism in school matters
Some recent acts of mass violence on Black Americans and against Black movements have been committed by young adults – the shooter who killed Black worshipers at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 was 21; the suspected shooter in Buffalo was 18.
The latest incident comes at a time when parents across the country are fighting to keep curriculum out of schools that could teach their children how racism and hatred have not just marred entire communities but have also hindered American progress.
Instead of teaching children as much as possible about a church bombing that killed four young Black girls in the 1960s, and devastated Black parents across the country, fights over curriculum tell young people that empathy for groups damaged by the nation’s past is unnecessary. A church in Alabama filled with worshipers has been replaced by a supermarket in Buffalo filled with community caregivers and public servants.
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Education about this nation’s struggle with racism and oppression has always been weak. The current fight against the imagined boogeyman of critical race theory threatens to make a flawed system (and uninformed generations) worse.
How is this country supposed to become less racist, less violent and more accepting when so many Americans fight to keep kids in the dark about their history – and in doing so, doom them to repeat it?
Last year, a group of white students in Texas repeated a horrible chapter of America’s past, not through a violent physical attack but by selling Black classmates on a social media app. According to news reports, the students used racially charged and psychologically damaging language. It was the same kind of dismissive language commonly used during auction block sales of Black men, women and children during centuries of slavery in America.
In that same Texas area, parents have fought against teaching critical race theory in schools, and others on the state level have pushed against curriculum and books related to slavery and the nation’s racist past.
History repeating itself, but worse
It’s hard to imagine a young person being colder than white supremacist politicians of the past such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace, who shouted in 1963, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”
But livestreaming your own killing spree – which is what authorities said Saturday’s suspect did – surpasses even Wallace’s callousness. That act reduced criminal behavior to something akin to promoting a brand for hatred. Why think deeply about your own actions (or dig deeply into what’s causing your hate) when you can hide behind the feeling that your crime is part of a bigger cause associated with a training film you’re creating?
Technology has allowed young people to distance themselves from their actions – and quickly spread material for copycats.
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We love to brag about our nation’s love for equality. But instead of fighting for this, we’re finding ways to cater to white supremacy in the name of free speech.
Perhaps we can learn from other countries. In Germany, curriculum about the Holocaust is mandatory and students visit concentration camps. For many, this brings a sense of understanding about human suffering, loss and the importance of not repeating such a grave moment in the nation’s history.
It’s also illegal to use the internet to spread white supremacist ideology in Germany. It’s illegal to deny the Holocaust. Social media platforms are tightly regulated by the government when it comes to hate speech.
We take pride in our Constitution – in the power it gives states to resolve issues such as education; in its free speech protections.
I’m not calling for our freedoms to be diminished. But tolerance for inflammatory speech without education has repeatedly brought disastrous results – ones that are killing my community. Education, which leads to empathy and understanding, is key.
When will new generations of Americans stop supporting throwback principles associated with white supremacy? When will domestic terrorism associated with racist hate end?
When what we teach matches our supposed values.
Eileen Rivers is the projects editor for USA TODAY Opinion. Follow her on Twitter: @msdc14