Thursday, November 18, 2004

Home is where the hate is

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

-- Rodgers and Hammerstein

I like to take my 3-year-old daughter to a lot of different playgrounds around town. One of the things I like about doing this in Seattle is that she gets to meet a lot of different kinds of kids of all different colors; it is, for one thing, a real contrast to my own upbringing in lily-white Idaho Falls, where I can't remember ever seeing an African American until I was about 7 years old.

It's obvious, too, that race is meaningless to the innocent. Fiona plays with anyone who wants to have fun with her, and they do likewise. Their different features are no more meaningful than hair and eye color -- which is to say, not much at all. This is true not just in the playground but at her Montessori preschool too; her "best friends" there are two Asian girls and a very cute blonde boy, and a young African girl is part of their circle of chums.

Where do children learn to hate? Most of the time, it's from their parents.

They aren't learning it in the curriculum taught in schools. Most educators, both public and private, work hard to weed out prejudice and bigotry in their students, and modern curricula often include tolerance-oriented teaching. In some cases, the drive for tolerance reaches absurd PC heights -- but it certainly beats the alternative.

Especially since, by all indicators, racial and religious bigotry are still alive and well in America, even if they have been forced to retreat to the shadows. Take, for instance, recent problems in Grays Harbor County, Washington, where minority service members have been forced to relocate because of harassment, and minority children in the local schools have been forced to endure assaults and racial epithets. This county is, of course, also the setting for the events described in Death on the Fourth of July.

A number of the events in Grays Harbor involve young children who have clearly picked up racist beliefs in their upbringing. And the odds are high that those beliefs come from the home.

In some cases, there are parents who specifically cultivate such attitudes in their children. This can, of course, create real conflicts in schools where tolerance is being taught. Indeed, many of the parents who harbor these attitudes find themselves chafing under the public-school system and withdraw their children to home-school them.

Generally speaking, I think home schooling can be a terrific idea for certain families -- especially if the parents are diligent, well educated themselves, and cultivate education not as the union card it's often treated as within the system, but a lifelong process of self-advancement and cultivation. The results of sound home schooling speak for themselves.

Unfortunately, home schooling in America also has a distinct downside: It can act as a cover for abusive and hyper-controlling parents, particularly those with extremist political, religious and cultural agendas. The Andrea Yates case in Texas was really only the tip of this particularly iceberg.

The Akron Beacon-Journal recently reported on one of the more troubling aspects of home schooling's dirty little secret:
Racists can use home schools to train youths

The story opens with a horrifying anecdote that is familiar to many: The home-schooled child who refuses to participate with minority children. It goes on to explore the subset of white supremacists who populate home schooling's fringes:
... Home schooling has a strain of racism running through it that may reflect similar ideas held by others in the broader society. There are no studies or numbers to put racism and home schooling in perspective, but home-schooling laws that ensure that parents have the freedom to make socialization choices for their children also allow some families to completely withdraw from society.

In Texas, a librarian told the Beacon Journal that some home-schooling parents objected to the book selection on the shelves. They lobbied the library to bring back older editions -- books that depicted the United States in the 1950s, prior to the landmark 1964 civil rights legislation.

That idea is espoused on a number of racist Internet sites, where people who have a common hatred of minorities -- especially of African-Americans and Jews -- converse.

Stormfront, a white supremacist organization, has a Web site on "education and home schooling." The overriding theme is to home-school to avoid exposure to other cultures.

Among the discussions is one in which a member suggests stealing and destroying books from the public library -- a popular resource for home schoolers -- to eliminate material that portrays the United States as anything other than a white, Protestant culture.

The piece also features a sidebar [registration req'd] that describes some of the white supremacists who take the home schooling route.

It's important, of course, to keep in mind that these people are a minority:
Scott Somerville, an attorney for the Home School Legal Defense Association, acknowledged that there are racists in the home-schooling community.

"They are not welcome here, and they know it," he said. "We're trying to build a strong, unified, intelligent and effective home-school movement so that the crazies feel very much marginalized."

He acknowledged that fringe elements of society -- such as unreconstructed Confederates and militia members -- home-school, but he said they are a small percentage of the overall movement.

"That's the challenge of trying to advance a vision of liberty where parents have the freedom to do what's good for their children," Somerville said.

Obviously, that same freedom allows people to brainwash their children, if that's what they want to do. That's not a right that should be taken away -- but it is, nonetheless, a real problem.

Clearly, a line needs to be drawn at preventing abusive situations, and authorities need to do a better job of monitoring this aspect of home schooling. But in the end, hate that is taught at the home can only be undone by society at large -- a functioning society that puts the lie to the dogma of racism and unteaches hate by enunciating clear ethical values and setting a clear example.

That work, as always, is incrementally slow, painful, and difficult. It is also, for a democratic society, imperative.

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