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Who Gets to Be American?

In one of the first acts of the Cold War, U.S. War Department officials recruited Nazi scientist Johann Tschinkel, along with 117 other scientists who had designed Hitler’s V-2 missile, to build a weapon under a program called Operation Paperclip. Once in the U.S., Tschinkel recalled that he could “line up excuses” for why he had consented to the Nazi regime and yet “the question remained: I had known about the persecution of Jews, Socialists and other regime adversaries.” He had watched his wife’s uncle being forced to wear the yellow star, and he had not helped him when he was imprisoned in Theresienstadt and then Treblinka, where he died. He had “heard rumors” about other concentration camps in Poland, and he knew people tried to emigrate. He realized he had not worked with any Jews since 1938.

Yet nothing in his past prepared him to resist; everything about his childhood education, both scholastic and social, had prepared him to collude. Born in 1907, Tschinkel believed that opposing Nazism “would have meant the forsaking of my circle of friends and [an] ingrained sense of law and order” he had spent a lifetime developing. “Many of the ethnic and nationalistic ideals with which I had grown up,” ideals he learned through history lessons and youth movements, embraced “the superiority of German culture and the Aryan race.” In his ruminations, Tschinkel identified how the seeds of Nazism were sown long before Hitler, not least through the political and social education of generations of youth.

Germany, of course, was not the only society indoctrinating its youth with ideas about race. Cold War–era campaigns aimed at preserving school segregation were waged in part over an understanding that what children learn about society while in school has lasting effects, both on the kinds of citizens they grow up to be and on the racial and class structures that seem natural to them. Just as Tschinkel saw his own past as preparing him to accept Nazi beliefs, American children were absorbing lessons about their own positions in a highly stratified and unequal society.

These historic struggles over the meaning of childhood and the role of schooling in shaping the social order have taken on new resonance in the past year. The heated demonstrations over critical race theory that have ravaged school board meetings and state legislatures have arisen from a renewed understanding that schools do not simply echo social, political, and cultural power but also create them. The slate of new laws and policies—Texas’s book banning campaign, the censorship of educators who have supported Black Lives Matters, the recent onslaught of “Don’t Say Gay” bills—seeks to ensure the future of political conservatism by shaping the beliefs of future voters.

At the center of the drama lies conservatives’ concern for white children’s happiness and a fear of white guilt. Take, for example, Oklahoma HB 1775, which prohibits schools from teaching anything that might make a student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Justifying an identical clause in Texas’s bill, state representative Steve Toth explained, “we don’t need to burden our kids with guilt for racial crimes they had nothing to do with.” From California to Virginia, parents have protested curricula that supposedly tell students “if you’re white, you’re guilty.”

What is at stake is nothing less than the kind of society children will grow up to inhabit, and the social roles those children will occupy. Conservatives seek to assert continued dominance over a school system that was, in meaningful senses, designed for white children’s advancement. Tschinkel’s ruminations might serve as a warning for us now about why they cannot be permitted to succeed.

Read entire article at Boston Review