Opinion by Margery Smelkinson Washington Post April 9, 2021 at 9:00 a.m. EDT15
Margery Smelkinson is an infectious-disease scientist and a leader in Together Again MCPS.
President Biden wants schools fully reopened by his 100th day in office, April 30. To help this along, his policies and administration have provided money, given vaccinations to educators and revised Centers for Disease Control and Prevention physical distancing guidance to enable more students to enter classrooms. Unfortunately, meager reopening efforts by state and county officials may preclude Maryland from achieving this goal. The state hovers near last place in the country for offering live instruction.
Weeks ago, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Karen B. Salmon encouraged districts to use three-feet distancing for all students in schools in accordance with the new CDC guidance, and Gov. Larry Hogan (R) said students “must have the opportunity to return to attending school in some form or fashion.” Sadly, Maryland’s largest districts are reopening glacially, and it was naive to assume they would do otherwise. They are clearly serving other interests. The unscientific policies and union demands that have kept schools closed for more than a year demonstrate our leaders’ ongoing apathy toward our children’s academic and mental well-being.
It will take far more than these weak nudges to get compliance out of districts, such as Montgomery and Prince George’s, that have been incredibly lethargic in returning students to classrooms. To achieve Biden’s goal, state leaders will need to mandate full reopening five days a week.
Eighty-six percent of U.S. public-school students attend schools that are offering instruction in person, many of them five days a week. The CDC reported in January that very few school outbreaks were recorded between March and December 2020 and that infection rates were the same in communities offering live instruction as they were in those offering virtual. This is because schools can be, and usually are, reopened safely with basic and inexpensive precautions.
However, as the state’s largest school boards remain slow to act, despite the research available on how to reopen safely, Maryland students are suffering the consequences. The state’s failing report card reflects this negligence.
Second-quarter data shows most districts in Maryland have doubled or tripled failing grades in math and English compared with last year. Most districts are also reporting significant drops in attendance. This school disengagement is a key driver of our youth mental health crisis, with diagnoses of anxiety and depression elevated over pre-pandemic times. The CDC, by comparing students learning in person with those learning remotely or in a hybrid model, links this mental health crisis, at least partly, to the seclusion of virtual learning.
Recognizing the extensive failings of online learning and the established safety of reopening, some of Maryland’s smaller counties, such as Cecil, Allegany and Carroll, have already returned students to school at least four days a week. In contrast, the lackadaisical reopening efforts of Montgomery, Baltimore, Howard and Prince George’s counties and Baltimore City, comprising 60 percent of Maryland’s students, are unscientific and disgraceful. As these districts also encompass three-quarters of Maryland’s Black and Hispanic population, this limits access to those very communities suffering the worst with online learning.
In January, Hogan called on schools to reopen for hybrid instruction by March 1, but these five districts are taking until mid-April or later to return all students for a piddling few days a week. Some students will have waited 400 days for even this little amount of in-person instruction. Being large does not excuse this sluggish return. Many similarly sized or larger districts have returned all students to schools in two to three weeks, including neighboring Fairfax County, with 188,000 students. A better showing by these large counties is essential to ending Maryland’s infamy as one of the states offering the least amount of live instruction.ADVERTISING
Adding insult to injury, even when students do return, many still languish in the isolation of Zoom because their teachers remain remote. Virtual instruction from the classroom is inadequate, does not address the academic needs of Maryland’s children, and does not reflect the live instruction that our children deserve and millions elsewhere are already receiving. Now that most Maryland teachers are vaccinated, which crushes transmission and infection, these accommodations must end. Teachers were prioritized for vaccination to provide live instruction.
Fully reopened schools are essential to reverse the downward trajectory of education in Maryland. Parents are ready to send kids back, but the largest counties are moving far too slowly, lengthening waitlists instead of responding to community needs and recognizing the urgent harms of online learning.
Every day our children are out of school worsens this academic and mental health crisis. This is particularly pressing as a recent national survey shows large racial disparities among students learning in person and those learning remotely, which will undoubtedly widen the education gap between White students and students of color.Advertisement
Schools are open five days a week in most states. In some cases, where local leaders have floundered, governors and state boards of education have required schools to provide full-time live instruction.
With the fourth quarter approaching, state leaders here must mandate schools fully reopen this spring. Every day that they don’t, Marylanders continue to fall further behind.
Among Good People dedicated to social justice, progressive causes and personal growth, there is often a high value placed on self-awareness and authentic expression. Being fully present, having feelings and being transparent about one’s experience and perspective are encouraged – at least that’s the intent. However, I often find that the value of authentic expression and feelings extends only throughout the territory of “positive emotions” like love, joy, connection, harmony, compassion, and even grief. “Negative” emotions – shame, envy, contempt, anger – aren’t as welcome. Especially anger.
Anger seems to especially unnerve and threaten good-hearted, progressive people. It’s often treated as an emotion that’s unsuitable for “evolved” people, who should transcend such “inferior” feelings. Maybe it’s because anger typically occurs in the belly and deep torso – long considered an inferior part of the body – instead of the chest or head. Maybe it’s because racial, cultural, class, and gender dynamics (White, middle-to-upper class, female) and these groups’ corresponding aversion to anger pervades many social justice, progressive, and personal growth communities. Maybe it’s just plain old fear.
This aversion to anger is not serving us, because anger serves us. Anger is not an inferior, or even “negative” emotion. Like all emotions, it gives us valuable information about our experience; about our interpretation of what’s going on around us. Anger lets us know we’re experiencing disrespect or the violation of a boundary. As a highly social species, expressed anger has helped humans keep each other in check for tens of thousands of years by showing displeasure with those who violate social norms essential to our survival. It’s helped us maintain cohesive communities and survive multiple threats to our existence as a species.
This might be why Good People fear anger. We fear power.
Good People often eschew power. We’ve seen individuals with power abuse and violate other individuals in the home and in the streets. We’ve witnessed people with power disrespecting and belittling other people at work. We’ve experienced institutions and companies with power cheating and decimating entire groups of people in society. We’ve witnessed nations and ethnic groups with power invade and murder other nations and ethnic groups.
So we reject power as harmful, even evil. This is a mistake. Power isn’t the problem, it’s one form of power that’s the problem: Power Over. While there’s evidence that merely possessing Power Over – even temporarily and in laboratory settings – triggers bad behavior in humans I maintain that the real problem is abuse of Power Over, intentional or not. Power is merely a tool or resource.
Also, other forms of power exist, which aren’t only useful, they’re essential to creating change and a world that works better for everyone. In his enlightening work with The Co-Intelligence Institute, Tom Atlee explores three other types of power besides Power Over: Power With, Power From Within, and Power As. He also talks quite a bit about Wholesome Power. This is the kind of expansive thinking Good People should adopt and embody. Thinking of power in limited terms as only one form – which is inherently evil – deprives Good People of one of the engines of much-needed (capital C) Change.
I define power as “the ability to create a result.” Results are desperately needed. Good People who are trapped in Overheartedness aren’t moving us forward. Those who live only in peace, love and kindness aren’t moving us forward. In his excellent book Power and Love, Adam Kahane describes the importance of both Power and Love to move change – that to wield only one is to walk with only one leg. Drawing on Paul Tillich, Kahane defines power as “the drive of everything living to realize itself, with increasing intensity and extensity” and love as “the drive toward the unity of the separated”. He writes:
“love is what makes power generative instead of degenerative. Power is what makes love generative instead of degenerative.”
He reminds us that Martin Luther King said “power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic….this collision of immoral power with powerless morality constitutes the major crisis of our time.” Kahane adds:
“love without attention to or transformation of power can be, not merely sentimental and anemic, but reinforcing of the capacity of the already powerful to act recklessly and abusively.”
We must exercise our power. Of course anger isn’t the only source of power, but it is a high-octane fuel for Change. Think about moments in history, and moments in your own life, where anger moved stuckness and led to beneficial change. Think about where we’d be in the USA without mass protests and sustained, disobedient resistance to oppression: women probably wouldn’t have the vote, African Americans might still be slaves, laborers would be more abused, and LGBT people might still live in the closet. Righteous anger fueled many of these movements. In my own life, once I realized I was angry, realized it was OK to be angry, began to honor and respect my anger then choose new behaviors, I became more fulfilled, more successful – and less depressed.
In fact, to NOT be angry in the world today may be a sign of insanity. Despite our myriad triumphs and all the progress we have to celebrate, most of us live with a crippling amount of unnecessary oppression, injustice, invasions of privacy, and dishonoring of our sacred personhood. I believe that our numbing to this, and increasing apathy as we drown in a sea of irrelevant information, is something to be deeply concerned about. Many of us become paralyzed by anxiety or depression, which is arguably a reasonable and healthy response to the state of the world, but doesn’t move us to do anything about it. Anger is an appropriate response to oppression, injustice, disrespect and dishonoring. I recently wrote a friend that had I been in Sandra Bland’s shoes during that fateful traffic stop in Texas two weeks ago, I’d probably have been just as “combative”, and rightly so.
To not be angry may also be a sign of denial or privilege. I was shocked by those who claimed after 9/11 there was nothing they believed, cherished or experienced – nothing – that would ever cause them to fly a plane full of people into a skyscraper full of people. I’m troubled by those who can’t fathom why African Americans set their community ablaze after an unjust trial verdict or yet another incidence of police violence against them with no meaningful consequences for those responsible. I don’t understand either of these views. I can imagine a dozen scenarios that would cause me to commit horrific acts of violence in the name of justice, survival, blind rage, terror, staggering grief or sheer desperation. How fortunate, or how numb, are those who can’t (or won’t) imagine such possibilities. How fortunate or numb they must be to be unable to identify a single incident in their lives deserving of outrage. How separate they must feel from the rest of us who, as I outline in my poem corajuda, have “excellent reasons and outstanding references” for our anger.
Being in touch with anger and what I’m capable of doesn’t mean I would commit horrific acts. Feelings don’t have to lead to action. Feelings aren’t a statement about a person’s character or worth – behavior is. Deciding mindfully, with our “upstairs” executive function brain, what to do with our anger is where we truly own our power. Owning our anger allows us to use our precious energy making effective choices instead of suppressing our feelings with shame. Being in touch with our anger allows us to empathize with other humans, and become curious about why someone might fly a plane full of people into a skyscraper full of people or burn down their community.
Such empathy and curiosity can lead to real change and sustainable solutions. It’s a new way to approach our problems. Eckhart Tolle said “Where there is anger, there is always pain underneath.” Marshall Rosenberg said “Violence in any form is a tragic expression of unmet needs.” Pain must be heard, felt, respected, then healed. Unmet needs must be met somehow. This is how to diffuse anger – not denial in ourselves or others.
Yet sometimes anger doesn’t need to be diffused, it needs to be transmuted – into action. Or anger needs to transmute another emotion, like fear. I recently saw a Facebook post from a younger female acquaintance who was understandably upset by (yet another) man groping her at a busstop. She expressed her profound fear and devastation at this repeated behavior in men around her. I was struck not only by her lack of anger, but the lack of anger of almost everyone who responded (only offering empathy and concern). It makes me super angry to witness one more young woman so programmed to see herself as powerless that her response to a man grabbing her in public is fear and running away instead of baring her teeth, fiercely snarling NO in his face and kneeing him several times in the groin until he falls down. It makes me super angry that none of the Facebook bystanders (except me) urged her to conquer her fear, learn to defend herself, and kick the shit out of the next a-hole who dares to invade her space.
Fear comes when we see ourselves as less powerful than the other. This is often an illusion of our powerlessness, or our limited read of where we stand in the Power Over paradigm. Having, feeling, and expressing anger is a result of taking a stand for our worth; of owning our power. Anger is a sign of awakening self-love. It’s a remembering of self-respect.
We need the self-loving force of anger to drive change not just in our individual lives, but as a collective. Writer Courtney Martin recently said “one of the things I feel like my parents really entrusted me with was this idea that you should trust your own outrage. And being able to honor that anger, to me, is one of the most important muscles of a rebel.” We can be a rebel in our own lives, or a rebel in the world. Or both. The value of anger is its power as a righteous catalyst for individual and collective Change. Let’s not dishonor it.
So what are you angry about? And what are you going to do about it?
Germany faced its horrible past. Can we do the same?
Shortly after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016 on the National Mall, I was speaking to some patrons of a successful nonprofit about the importance of candid racial dialogue in politics and in the places we live, work and worship.
One of the participants had recently toured the museum and had a pointed question. Why, she wondered, were all the exhibits that visitors first encounter dedicated to slavery? Among other things, she was referring to a reconstructed cabin built by former slaves from Maryland and a statue of Thomas Jefferson next to a wall with the names of more than 600 people he owned. “Couldn’t the exhibits begin with more uplift?” the woman asked, arguing that Black achievement was more worthy of the spotlight. She suggested that the museum should instead usher visitors toward more positive stories right from the start, so that if someone were tired or short on time, “slavery could be optional.”
Her question was irksome, but it did not surprise me. I’d heard versions of the “Can’t we skip past slavery” question countless times before. Each time serves as another reminder that America has never had a comprehensive and widely embraced national examination of slavery and its lasting impact. Yes, there are localized efforts. But despite the centrality of slavery in our history, it is not central to the American narrative in our monuments, history books, anthems and folklore.
There is a simple reason: The United States does not yet have the stomach to look over its shoulder and stare directly at the evil on which this great country stands. That is why slavery is not well taught in our schools. That is why the battle flag of the army that tried to divide and conquer our country is still manufactured, sold and displayed with defiant pride. That is why any mention of slavery is rendered as the shameful act of a smattering of Southern plantation owners and not a sprawling economic and social framework with tentacles that stamped almost every aspect of American life.
We can read about, watch and praise documentaries and Hollywood projects about the Civil War, or read countless volumes on the abolitionist or civil rights movements. But these are all at a remove from the central horror of enslavement itself. From the kidnappings in Africa to the horrors of the Middle Passage, the beatings and the instruments of bondage, the separation of families, the culture of rape, the abuse of children, the diabolical rationalizations and crimes against humanity — no, we haven’t had that conversation. We have not had that unflinching assessment, and we are long overdue.
America experienced 246 years of slavery before it was officially ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment. That was followed by decades of legal segregation and oppression under Jim Crow, followed by a period of willful blindness and denial. A tourist from a foreign land might well conclude that the Confederacy had actually won the Civil War, based on the number of monuments, buildings and boulevards still named for heroes of its defeated army. The real truth of our shared history was a casualty of that war and, like any wound left untended, the results can be catastrophic.
A full accounting of slavery is one of terror and trauma, and for decades the natural inclination was to ask, why would anyone want to claim that history? But at a moment when the United States is dangerously divided, when we are having bitter and overdue conversations about policing, inequality and voting rights, when marauders fueled by white-nationalist rhetoric can overwhelm the Capitol, proudly waving the Confederate battle flag, the more important question is this: What happens if we don’t?
A supporter of then-President Donald Trump holds a Confederate battle flag outside the Senate chamber during rioting inside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Historians often look to “collective memory” — how groups of people typically recall past events — to help decipher a nation’s identity and soul. These memories can change over time, and there is evidence that people remember things that never happened. But collective forgetting can be just as revealing.
The United States is not the only country with an evil antecedent that was swept aside, forgotten or minimally examined. That list is long, but one country offers a powerful alternative path. Barely three generations ago, Germany hosted horrors that killed millions and left the nation split in two. This was not a legacy that most Germans were inclined to honor. And yet, today, less than 100 years after the rise of Adolf Hitler, Germany has made a prodigious effort to come to terms with its past with regularized rituals of repentance and understanding.
This collective culture of atonement is captured in the eight syllables and 26 letters that comprise the German word Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. It’s a mouthful that translates loosely to “working off the past.” But its full meaning goes deeper than even that awkward phrase suggests.
Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung refers to Germany’s efforts to interrogate the horrors of the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. It has been a decades-long exercise, beginning in the 1960s, to examine, analyze and ultimately learn to live with an evil chapter through monuments, teachings, art, architecture, protocols and public policy. The country looks at its Nazi past by consistently, almost obsessively, memorializing the victims of that murderous era, so much so that it is now a central feature of the nation’s cultural landscape. The ethos of this campaign is “never forget.”This collective culture of atonement is captured in the eight syllables and 26 letters that comprise the German word: Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung. It’s a mouthful that translates loosely to “working off the past.” But its full meaning goes deeper than even that awkward phrase suggests.
“There isn’t a native equivalent for this word in any other language, and while many countries have in one way or another tried to confront past evils, few if any have done what Germany has done,” said Susan Neiman, a moral philosopher at Berlin’s Einstein Forum who has long studied the social aftermath of the war in Germany. An American Jew raised in Atlanta, Neiman has spent most of her adult life in Germany and is the author of a book about the inquiry: “Learning from the Germans: Race and the Memory of Evil.”
“They got right the idea that a nation has to face its criminal past in order to become whole and strong and not riven by unsaid guilt, unsaid resentment,” she explained. “They got right the idea that here is a process that one can go through that it takes time, but that you come out better in the end. And they got right the idea that it has to happen on several fronts.”
What ushered in the era of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung? There is no singular hero or postwar epiphany you can find in the history books. Germany came to it slowly and, it must be said, reluctantly. And it took a different generation born long after Germany’s surrender to stoke the idea. It is important to remember that Germany did not immediately reach for atonement after World War II. Former servants of the Reich drifted back into government. And even with the Allies’ strict protocol of war crimes trials and denazification — a process that at the time was often called “victor’s justice” — Germans often cast themselves as victims in the decades immediately following World War II.
The televised 1961 trial in Israel of Adolf Eichmann, a chief architect of the Holocaust, and the Auschwitz trials of former Nazi war criminals from 1963 to 1965, began to alter that view. The two tribunals awakened public interest in the previous generation’s horrifying immorality. The Auschwitz tribunal was billed as the “trial of the century” in Europe, and it stirred an appetite for a deeper explanation of what happened between 1930 and 1945. It also sparked questions about why so many everyday Germans willingly marched along that dark path.
This 1961 photograph shows Adolf Eichmann standing in his glass cage, flanked by guards, in a Jerusalem courtroom during his trial for war crimes committed during World War II. (AP)
The trials culminated in a period when the world was entering an era of protest and social unrest as postwar baby boomers agitated for a new guiding sensibility. Unsettling questions about the country’s past also reverberated in private homes as children raised by people who had survived the war demanded a greater accounting of their relatives’ roles. Were the people at their kitchen table, at the desk in front of their classroom, at the cash register at the corner bakery connected to the atrocities described in those televised trials? And the questions raised by those real-life courtroom dramas created an urgency among historians, artists and government officials to research what happened while simultaneously looking for a path toward acceptance and respectability.
By the mid-1960s, West Germany’s economy was beginning to hum, but the country still carried the stench of history. Would anyone in the world buy those affordable little rear-engine Volkswagen Beetles if they came from a place that was indelibly branded with hatred and genocide? “As Germany got to be a little bit wealthier and people began to be able to travel within Europe,” Neiman said, “young people did start hearing the other side of the story, not just, poor us, we lost the war. They realized how uncomfortable it was to be a German visitor in France or in Holland or elsewhere in Europe. Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung came into use in the ‘60s, an abstract, polysyllabic way of saying, ‘We have to do something about the Nazis.’”
An employee at a Volkswagen factory inspects a Volkswagen 1200 Sedan, better known as a Beetle, on the assembly line in Wolfsburg, then in West Germany, in the 1960s. (Pictorial Parade/Getty Images)
A good deal of the energy that fueled the rise of Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung happened at the grass roots with individuals changing the landscape by literally putting their hands in the soil, digging up the weeds that had grown over abandoned concentration camps and unearthing underground Gestapo torture chambers in the middle of Berlin.
In today’s Germany, children learn through their teachers and textbooks that the Nazi reign was a horrible and shameful chapter in the nation’s past. Cadets training to become police officers in Berlin take 2½ years of training that includes Holocaust history and a field trip to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. With a few exceptions for the sake of education, it is against the law to produce, distribute or display any symbol of the Nazi era, including the swastika, the Nazi flag and the Hitler salute. It is also illegal to deny that the Holocaust was real.
Instead, memorials of remembrance are ubiquitous and honor the vast array of victims of the Nazi regime: Jews, gays, Roma, the disabled and those who were viewed as disrespectable, anti-social or traitors. Some of the monuments are impossible to miss; others catch you by surprise. Many do both: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe covers 4.5 acres in the heart of downtown Berlin, prime real estate set aside by parliament when the Berlin Wall came down — despite a long line of real estate interests that were eager to develop the property. The former Neuengamme internment camp in Hamburg features a sculpture of a twisted, bald and naked human form that conveys the soul-crushing history and the backbreaking work of camp prisoners in a brick factory. If one looks down into a large glass oculus cut into the pavement at Berlin’s Bebelplatz square, you will see a sunken library — featuring rows of empty white shelves that symbolize the thousands of books burned by Nazis. A bronze marker bears the inscription: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people as well.”
Many, if not most, of the memorials are far more subtle. Plaques and markers in many German cities note the locations of synagogues, schools and Jewish neighborhoods that were raided and razed by Hitler and his legions. Roughly 75,000 small brass “stumbling stones,” known as Stolpersteine, are embedded in the streets and plazas of hundreds of towns and cities throughout Germany and elsewhere. Each begins with the phrase “Here lived” and is followed by the facts of someone’s life — their name and birth date. And then that etching is followed by the grim facts of their fate: exile, internment, murder.
Memorial for the victims in the former Neuengamme concentration camp. BOTTOM RIGHT: Two Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) commemorating Holocaust victims, are pictured in front of Fehrbellinerstrasse 86 in Berlin on Jan. 5, 2017. The small plaques the size of a child’s hand document the fate of a mother and daughter who lived in a small apartment: 50-year-old Taube Ibermann and Lotte, 19.
Imagine traveling through an American state and coming upon small, embedded memorials that listed key facts about the lives of the enslaved. Their names. Their fates. Their birth dates. The number of times they were sold. The ways they were separated from their families. The conditions of their toil. Imagine how that might shape the way we comprehend the peculiar institution of slavery, its legacy and its normalized trauma. Imagine if there were similar embedded memorials for Indigenous peoples, who were forced from their land, relegated to reservations far from their normal ranges and regions. Imagine stopping to fill up the tank at a roadside gas station and noticing the reflection off a gleaming brass marker that bears the names of the tribal elders who once lived where you are standing.
I am not suggesting that slavery and the Holocaust or the forced removal of Native American peoples are all in the same vein. They are each distinctly diabolical. But comparing these two countries’ paths forward from a dark past is instructive because it sheds light not on comparative evil but instead contrasting redemption. The United States helped dictate the terms of Germany’s future after the war. In the decades after that, Germany outpaced the United States in coming to terms with a shameful past that collided with the country’s preferred narrative.
By the time West German President Richard von Weizsäcker delivered a speech marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II in May 1985, the landscape had already shifted. Weizsäcker, then 65, was a leader in the center-right Christian Democratic Union, a former Wehrmacht captain whose father was the chief career diplomat for the Third Reich. And yet, there he was, gray-haired and solemn before the Bundestag, shifting the conventional narrative by asking his country to reconsider and remember the true nature of the nation’s past: “We need to look truth straight in the eye.”
“The young and old generations,” he said, “can and must help each other to understand why it is important to keep memories alive. It is not a case of coming to terms with the past. That is not possible. It cannot be subsequently modified or made undone. However, anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection.”
(picture alliance/picture alliance via Getty Image)
Anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity is prone to new risk of infection. (Richard von Weizsäcker, President of West Germany, in 1985 marking the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II)
Those words should reverberate and haunt us today in America, where a resurgent wave of white nationalism is widely visible. At a time when America’s political parties are at war over the teaching of critical race theoryin schools, it is hard to see how our governing leadership could possibly reach consensus about acknowledging and examining the horrors of slavery. Could someone in the conservative camp challenge the party’s prevailing ideology and demonstrate the introspective courage shown by Weizsäcker? I wish the answer were yes.
Yet it is important to remember that Germany’s path to truth was not swift or easy. It was halting and imperfect, and efforts to make reparation were awkward and meager. While there are now thousands of memorials across Germany, not all of them strike the right note, and debate continues as to how to provide something in the way of balm to families who still contend with public shame and private grief for loved ones lost in the war. And Germany is better at acknowledging its crimes in its big cities than in smaller towns far from the capital.
Nor has Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung been able to fully extinguish the forces of racial and ethnic hatred inside Germany. The country’s police and security agencies have been plagued by far-right extremism in the ranks and, as in many parts of the world, a strong anti-immigrant bias has taken root in activist groups. “The most thoughtful Germans, East and West, are reluctant to praise German Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung,” notes Neiman. “They are too aware of its flaws.”
But if Germany’s reckoning with its Nazi past is a sprawling, complicated, messy, ongoing process, it is an active process. And because of that, its national compass remains pointed toward a more just and humane future. Our compass for charting a new course from a difficult history is shaky, and we should just admit that as we begin our own journey toward truth.
When Barack Obama was first elected president in 2008, there was an expectation that he would lead some kind of national conversation about race. We don’t place the same expectations on White leaders for some reason, but we should.President Biden was in Tulsa to mark the 100-year anniversary of one of the most vicious acts of racial violence in U.S. history. In 1921, an angry White mob attacked a thriving Black community known as “Black Wall Street.” A 35-block stretch of homes, churches and prosperous businesses was ransacked and burned; as many as 300 people died. Until recently, the Tulsa Race Massacre was missing from history books and rarely discussed. Biden met with survivors who were children when that terror was unleashed, and he spoke directly about white supremacy in a way few presidents have. “We should know the good, the bad, everything,” he said. “That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.”
That is a start. Biden should keep his foot on that pedal and launch an official inquiry about uncomfortable historical truths, and do it in a way that ensures that it will extend over years, if not decades. Because it is time for the United States to convene its own version of a truth and reconciliation commission and fully examine the horrors of slavery and their continued aftermath. And it is time to do this with the full expectation that many Republicans will cry foul, howl at the fringes and try to undermine every aspect of the exercise.
That should not stop the effort. That is the very reason the collective American narrative needs a strong dose of truth. We need clear eyes and a firm spine, and then we need to chart a new path forward. That kind of step would also launch re-examinations of the treatment of America’s Indigenous peoples, the eugenics movement and the internment camps of the 1940s for U.S. citizens and noncitizens of Japanese descent.
And yet we are in a moment when hard truths are not just inconvenient, they are challenged and dismissed with great fanfare. A growing cottage industry is taking root among those who use their animus to stoke the fires of white grievance and feed the false claim that the hidden motive of all truth-seeking is to elevate people of color by making White people feel bad about themselves.
It is not surprising that some White people would be reluctant to dive into this history. We are still producing textbooks where the enslaved are called “workers of Africa.” And while racial fatigue is a real thing leading to real tensions and discomfort, it sometimes seems that people claim to be exhausted by a conversation that has never really taken place. I wonder whether people are just repelled by the idea of this conversation or they are really rattled by what they might hear.
I also find it deeply ironic that there is such a fierce battle to evade and erase historical teachings about slavery because, in the time of enslavement, there was such an assiduous effort to document and catalogue every aspect of that institution, much in the way people now itemize, assess and insure their valuables. The height, weight, skin color, teeth, hair texture, work habits and scars that might help identify anyone who dared flee were documented. Their teeth, their work habits, their menstrual cycles and their windows of fertility — because producing more enslaved people produced more wealth — were entered like debits and credits in enslavers’ ledgers.
Poster announcing a slave sale in 1856. (Photo 12/Universal Images Group via Getty)
A startling example comes from Daina Ramey Berry, professor and chair of the history department at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of “The Price for Their Pound of Flesh.” Berry compares the sale of two “first rate prime males” named Guy and Andrew sold in 1859 at what was believed to be the largest auction in U.S. history. They were the same age and size and had similar skills. Andrew sold for $1,040, while Guy elicited a larger sum of $1,280. The difference was that Andrew had lost a right eye. A newspaper reporter covering that two-day auction in 1859 noted that the value of a Black man’s right eye in the South was $240.
Amnesia gets in the way of atonement in America. But amnesia is actually too benign a word because it sounds as though people just forgot about the horrors of slavery, forgot about people who were forced to work in the fields literally until their death, forgot that more than 2 million Africans died during their forced migration to this country in the way one forgets where they placed their car keys or their passport.
We’ve been through more than a willful forgetting; we’ve had instead an assiduous effort to rewrite history. We’ve built monuments to traitors and raised large sums of money to place the names of generals who fought against their own country all over highways and civic buildings. We’ve allowed turncoats to become heroes of the Lost Cause instead of rebels desperate to keep people in bondage.
On a personal level, this false narrative about America is another act of cruelty, even a kind of larceny. I view the real story, the genuine history — ugly as it is — as part of my people’s wealth. You built this country on the backs of African Americans’ ancestors. Our contributions — in blood, sweat and bondage — must be told. Our children, indeed, all of America, deserve to know what we have endured and survived to understand the depth of our fortitude, but also to understand that, despite centuries of enslavement and years of Black Codes and brutal Jim Crow segregation, our contributions are central to America’s might. The erasure is massive in scope.
Our inability to face this history is a stick in the wheel of forward progress, a malignancy that feeds the returning ghost of white supremacy, a deficit that paves the way for bias to return. We find ourselves pulled backward in time, reliving some of the same challenges that inspired the civil rights movement 60 years ago — restrictions on voting rights, police assaults on Black bodies, racial disparities in almost everything pandemic-related, from deaths and infection rates to access to vaccines.
We know the countries that combine truth and resolve have the best chance to reconcile with a difficult past. Truth is the most important ingredient, and it carries a special currency after four years of an administration that peddled falsehoods without apology and continues to use a series of big lies to justify a war on our democracy. It is long past time to face where truth can take us.
Pride is part of our brand in America. So, too, is strength. Shame doesn’t fit easily into that story. The Germans decided that discomfort could make them stronger by creating guardrails against a returning evil. We instead have reached for blinders.
There is no equivalent concept for Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung in our culture. It doesn’t even translate well into English. One might be tempted to think of it as working to shed the past — as in dropping pounds or paying a debt. But it really means something more prospective, like trying to build an ever bigger, ever more complicated structure off a foundation with serious cracks. Those flaws must be addressed, assessed, fixed and made sturdy before the foundation can take more weight.
To address something this monumental we often look to our biggest institutions to lead the way. But if we are to actually learn from the Germans, we have to widen our aperture. Yes, we will need leaders who have the courage to face this history to use their platforms and their muscle in government, business, religion, philanthropy and academia. But the reason Vergangenheitsaufarbeitungtook root in Germany was because its most ardent and committed proponents were closer to the ground. It wasn’t limited to the ivory tower, the C-suite or the pulpit. History was challenged from below.
Take the stumbling stones: The stories are researched by neighbors, schoolchildren, and church or civic groups. They raise the money and track down the victim’s relatives, and as protocol dictates, invite them to a modest installation ceremony. These small acts of atonement and grace led to a national willingness to confront an odious history.
Could we ever open our eyes here in the United States to confront the lies in our founding myths? Could we comprehend the strength that comes from learning the real story? Do we have the fortitude for a reckoning that goes so much deeper than placing a Black Lives Matter sign in the front yard or insisting that fidelity to the Confederate flag is really about honoring Southern heritage instead of an institution based in hatred? Can we hope to produce a generation of leaders who can speak and be heard and perhaps even embraced by people who occupy those opposing terrains? Our future as a united country of people ever more divided depends on it.
When I first learned about Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung, I kept thinking about the encounter I had with the woman who had asked me if “slavery could be optional” within a museum dedicated to Black life in America. She wanted it swept from the story like an unsavory item on a menu: I’ll take a serving of patriotic history, but please hold the whippings and the bondage.
But, no, slavery cannot be an optional part of the national story. It should not be excised from the narrative we teach our children about who we are and what we have become.
We must admit to, examine, reflect, lean into and grow through that history. All of that history.
What is the word for Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung in English?
President Proposes Increase in AmeriCorps Budget to Prioritize Economic Opportunity, Racial Equity, and Underserved Communities through National Service and Volunteering
The Biden-Harris Administration has submitted to Congress the President’s Budget for fiscal year 2022. As the Administration continues to make progress defeating the pandemic and getting our economy back on track, the Budget makes historic investments that will help the country build back better and lay the foundation for shared growth and prosperity for decades to come.
“Over the past year, America’s spirit of service has been on dramatic display. All across the country, Americans have united to combat COVID-19, address racial and economic inequity, and bring hope and help to those in need. For nearly three decades, AmeriCorps has tapped the ingenuity and can-do spirit of the American people to meet our toughest challenges.
As our nation grapples with a series of converging crises, AmeriCorps will continue to connect local organizations with people who want to serve to meet pressing challenges, including building a more inclusive and equitable economy for all.
For decades, national service has engaged Americans of all backgrounds in tackling our toughest challenges, uniting people to work together for the common good. Time and time again, we have seen that when our nation invests in national service, we all win. Together with community partners, AmeriCorps engages dedicated individuals in making our nation more fair, equitable, and united. The FY 2022 Budget continues this smart investment in the American people—an investment that solves problems, expands opportunity, strengthens communities, connects us with our neighbors, and unites our nation,” said AmeriCorps Acting CEO Mal Coles.
The FY 2022 President’s Budget includes the two historic plans the Administration has already put forward — the Americans Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan – and reinvests in education, research, public health, and other foundations of our country’s strength.
The Budget provides AmeriCorps with $1.2 billion, an increase of $89.2 million over the FY 2021 Enacted level, that will support AmeriCorps and its state and local partners in service to improve lives, strengthen communities, foster civic engagement, and engage Americans in national service and volunteerism. At AmeriCorps [the Corporation for National and Community Service], the Budget would:
Advance Racial and Economic Equity. The Budget provides $3.4 million to help nonprofit and voluntary organizations broaden their volunteer base, mobilize underserved individuals in volunteering, and increase their impact on community challenges. AmeriCorps will focus the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service on advancing racial justice and equity solutions and the September 11th National Day of Service and Remembrance on increasing support for veterans, military members, and their families. The Budget also provides funding to support more individuals with different abilities to participate in national service. The Budget will help underserved and under-resourced communities develop program models that will benefit their communities and engage community members as AmeriCorps members.
Prioritize Underserved Individuals and Communities. The Biden-Harris Administration is committed to supporting and building on the investment made by the American Rescue Plan to expand national service opportunities to more people. In FY 2022, AmeriCorps will increase the stipend provided to AmeriCorps Seniors volunteers and also will work to optimize use of the Segal Education Award to make higher education more accessible. The agency will take steps to recruit and retain a diverse corps of members and volunteers from underserved populations, including strengthening relationships with Historically Black Colleges and Universities, Hispanic Serving Institutions, and Tribal Colleges; increasing our consultation and collaboration with Tribal communities; and undertaking targeted recruitment efforts. Through these and other efforts, more individuals from underserved communities will engage in national service and have stronger pathways to employment and economic opportunity.
Expand Use of Evidence-Based Approaches to Drive National Service. The Budget provides $4.3 million for AmeriCorps evaluation, an increase of $250,000 above the FY 2021 Enacted level that will bolster agency’s use of evidence and evaluation to drive programmatic and funding decisions and increase the use of evidence-based approaches in AmeriCorps programs. These efforts will strengthen the agency’s efforts to promote a culture of evidence and evaluation within the agency and among grantees by facilitating evidence-based and evidence-informed grantmaking.
As America confronts a series of converging crises, the role of national service and volunteering have never been more important. This Budget will provide resources to support AmeriCorps and its large network of partners in helping to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, rebuild the economy, address racial inequity, tackle the climate crisis, and meet other challenges with higher levels of impact, accountability, and efficiency. The agency’s primary programs are included in the Budget with the following funding recommendations:
AmeriCorps State and National. The Budget provides $501 million to AmeriCorps State and National, an increase of $46 million above the FY 2021 Enacted level that will support approximately 52,000 AmeriCorps members who will help communities in tackling challenges related to COVID-19, economic opportunity, environmental stewardship and climate change, and other community needs. With this funding, AmeriCorps State and National will continue to invest in evidence informed and evidence-based community solutions, providing a source of human capital to meet pressing community needs across the country and a pathway to economic and educational opportunities for Americans who serve.
AmeriCorps VISTA. The Budget provides $103.86 million to AmeriCorps VISTA, an increase of $6.5 million above the FY 2021 Enacted level that will support an estimated 8,000 full-time AmeriCorps members and summer associates, focused on capacity building for anti-poverty projects to enhance the diversity, equity, and inclusion of both AmeriCorps members and beneficiaries, and direct resources to under-served communities. VISTA will continue to promote evidence-informed activities that address needs including food insecurity, a long-time area of need made especially acute during the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, VISTA projects will support safe and affordable housing, improve access to health care, provide support for veterans and their families, and help communities become more resilient to the impacts of extreme weather, disasters, and climate change.
AmeriCorps NCCC. The Budget provides $37.7 million to AmeriCorps NCCC, an increase of $4.2 million above the FY 2021 Enacted level that will support an estimated 2,080 members in direct, team-based national service. This includes 1,440 members in the traditional program and 640 members in the AmeriCorps-FEMA Corps program. AmeriCorps NCCC will expand its impact with the addition of 80 members who will support priority needs around climate change and support veterans and military families. The Budget will also support a 28 percent increase in the daily food allowance and enhanced support to meet behavioral health needs.
AmeriCorps Seniors. The Budget provides $244.5 million, an increase of $19.5 million above the FY 2021 Enacted level that will support an estimated 175,000 Americans age 55 and older to address ongoing impacts of the pandemic including learning loss and food insecurity and meet other community needs in independent living, disaster response, substance abuse prevention, and the environment. The Budget will expand the number of RSVP volunteers serving communities, increase the stipend for Senior Companion and Foster Grandparent volunteers, and support outreach to new organizations and communities. The Budget provides for funding increases across all three AmeriCorps Seniors programs.
Enacting the Budget policies into law this year would strengthen our Nation’s economy and lay the foundation for shared prosperity, while also improving our Nation’s long-term fiscal health.
AmeriCorps has a proven record in meeting a wide range of community needs in education, health, economic opportunity, disaster services, supporting veterans and military families, and preserving public lands. Through our programs, we engage 250,000 individuals in results-driven service at 40,000 locations across the country, helping Americans succeed in school, live independently, and rebuild their lives after homelessness, job loss, or natural disasters.
International Day of the African Child takes place on June 16, 2021. The Day of the African Child has been celebrated every year since 1991, when it was first initiated by the Organisation of African Unity. It honors those who participated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 on that day. It also raises awareness of the continuing need for improvement of the education provided to African children.
In Soweto, South Africa, on June 16, 1976, about ten thousand black school children marched in a column more than half a mile long, protesting the poor quality of their education and demanding their right to be taught in their own language. Hundreds of young students were shot, the most famous of which being Hector Peterson. More than a hundred people were killed in the protests of the following two weeks, and more than a thousand were injured. (With material from: Wikipedia)
Where is Day of the African Child? Worldwide World When is Day of the African Child? Wednesday, the 16th of June 2021
Opinion by Michael Gerson Columnist May 27, 2021 at 3:16 p.m. Washington Post
In the evangelical Christian tradition, you generally know when you’ve been “saved” or “converted.” It comes in a rush of spiritual relief. A burden feels lifted.
But how does one know if he or she has become “woke”? How does one respond to this altar call and accept this baptism?
It’s a question that came to mind as I read“The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States,” by Walter Johnson, a history professor at Harvard University. I grew up in St. Louis, in a placid, White, middle-class suburb. At school, I was inflicted with classes in Missouri history that emphasized the role of the region in the exploration and settlement of the American West. I visited the Museum of Westward Expansion in the base of the Gateway Arch, which glorified the sacrifices of American pioneers.
“The Broken Heart of America” is a strong antidote to such lessons. In this telling, St. Louis was “the juncture of empire and anti-Blackness” and “the morning star of U.S. imperialism.” It was the military base of operations for the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans from the Upper Midwest. It was the home of vicious lynch mobs and racial redlining. “Beneath all the change,” Johnson argues, “an insistent racial capitalist cleansing — forced migrations and racial removal, reservations and segregated neighborhoods, genocidal wars, police violence and mass incarceration — is evident in the history of the city at the heart of American history.”
William Clark was not only an intrepid explorer, he was the author of treaties that removed more than 81,000 Indians from their homelands. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton was not just the populist voice of “the West,” he was the father of “settler colonialism” and an apologist for slavery. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation — but merely afew days before he had ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men, which “remains the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.” The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was a festival of white supremacy, in which the organizers “assembled living human beings in a zoo.”
And so on. My first reaction, honestly, was to bristle. Was every character in the American story a villain? Must one accept Marxist economic and social analysis to believe in social justice? Is every institution and achievement with injustice in its history fundamentally corrupt and worthless forevermore?
It is my second thought, however, that has lingered. Historians such as Johnson might dwell on historical horrors and put them into narrow ideological narratives, but the events they recount are real. The U.S. government’s Indian wars were often conducted by sadists and psychopaths such as William S. Harney (who beat an enslaved woman named Hannah to death because he had lost his keys and blamed her for hiding them). A White lynch mob murdered a free Black man named Francis McIntosh in 1836, burning him alive while he begged his tormentors to shoot him. Over two days in 1917, a mob of Whites in East St. Louis murdered scores of their Black neighbors and destroyed hundreds of buildings, in a horrible preview of Tulsa’s 1921 Race Massacre.
And it’s true that white-supremacist ideology pervaded institutions and systems — labor policies, construction contracts, city planning, racist policing, the exclusion of Black children from public pools. Place names I know well — Ladue, Kirkwood, Webster Groves — were scenes of exclusion, oppression and petty cruelty.
How to process all this? If being “woke” means knowing the full story of your community and country, including the systemic racism that still shapes them, then every thinking adult should be. And books such as Johnson’s are a needed corrective to history as pious propaganda. But for a fuller explanation of what patriotism means in a flawed nation, there are more reliable guides.
Frederick Douglass, for example, felt incandescent anger at the “hideous and revolting” hypocrisy of the free country where he was born into enslavement. He said in 1852: “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States. … The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense and your Christianity as a lie.”
For Douglass, however, this founding crime did not discredit American ideals; it demonstrated the need for their urgent and radical application. He insisted that the Constitution was “a glorious liberty document.” He drew encouragement from the “great principles” of the Declaration of Independence and the “genius of American institutions.” He challenged the country’s hypocrisy precisely because he took its founding principles so seriously.
How can you love a place while knowing the crimes that helped produce it? By relentlessly confronting hypocrisy and remaining “woke” to the transformational power of American ideals.
Shortly after 8 p.m. on May 25, 2020, Derek Chauvin, a Minneapolis police officer, placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck and kept it there for more than nine minutes. None of the three other officers standing near Chauvin intervened. Soon, Floyd was dead.
Initially, the police gave a misleading account of Floyd’s death, and the case might have received relatively little attention but for the video that Darnella Frazier, a 17-year-old, took with her phone. That video led to international outrage and, by some measures, the largest protest marches in U.S. history.
Today, one year after Floyd’s murder, we are going to look at the impact of the movement that his death inspired in four different areas.
1. New rules for police
More than 30 states and dozens of large cities have created new rules limiting police tactics. Two common changes: banning neck restraints, like the kind Chauvin used; and requiring police officers to intervene when a fellow officer uses extreme force.
Christy Lopez of the Innovative Policing Program at Georgetown University calls the changes important but preliminary: “They’re really necessary first steps, but they’re also baby steps,” she said.
2. A focus on racism
The Black Lives Matter movement — which was re-energized by the killings of Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others — has called for changes to much more than policing. The movement has demanded that the country confront its structural racism.
“Non-Black employees joined with their Black colleagues to demand the hiring of more Black people,” The Washington Post’s Perry Bacon Jr. wrote. “So companies and institutions stopped whining about supposedly bad pipelines and started looking beyond them.”
It’s still unclear how much has changed and how much of the corporate response was public relations.
3. Changes in public opinion
Initially, public sympathy for the Black Lives Matter movement soared. But as with most high-profile political subjects in the 21st-century U.S., opinion soon polarized along partisan lines.
Today, Republican voters are less sympathetic to Black Lives Matter than they were a year ago, the political scientists Jennifer Chudy and Hakeem Jefferson have shown. Support among Democrats remains higher than it was before Floyd’s death but is lower than immediately afterward.
There are a few broad areas of agreement. Most Americans say they have a high degree of trust in law enforcement — even more than did last June, FiveThirtyEight’s Alex Samuels notes. Most also disagree with calls to “defund” or abolish police departments. Yet most back changes to policing, such as banning chokeholds.
Many liberals argue that the increase has little to do with the protest movement’s call for less aggressive policing. The best evidence on this side of the debate is that violent crime was already rising — including in Chicago, New York and Philadelphia — before the protests. This pattern suggests that other factors, like the pandemic and a surge of gun purchases, have played important roles.
Many conservatives believe that the crime spike is connected to the criticism of the police, and they point to different evidence. First, the crime increase accelerated last summer, after the protests began — and other high-income countries have not experienced similar increases. Second, this acceleration fits into a larger historical pattern: Crime also rose in Baltimore and Ferguson, Mo., after 2015 protests about police violence there, as Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist and crime scholar, notes.
“When there have been large-scale protests against police, it is pretty clear that some police have stopped doing their jobs, and that’s destabilizing,” Sharkey has told us. But that doesn’t mean that the pre-protest status quo was the right approach, he emphasizes. Brute-force policing “can reduce violence,” he said, in a Q. and A. with The Atlantic. “But it comes with these costs that don’t in the long run create safe, strong, or stable communities.”
Some reform advocates worry that rising crime will rebuild support for harsh police tactics and prison sentences. “Fear makes people revert to old ways of doing things,” Lopez said.
The big question
How can police officers both prevent crime and behave less violently, so that they kill fewer Americans while doing their jobs?
Some experts say that officers should focus on hot spots where most crimes occur. Others suggest training officers to de-escalate situations more often. Still others recommend taking away some responsibilities from the police — like traffic stops and mental-health interventions — to reduce the opportunities for violence.
So far, the changes do not seem to have affected the number of police killings. Through last weekend, police officers continued to kill about three Americans per day on average, virtually the same as before Floyd’s murder.
I am proud to announce that Cleydi Pacheco is Community Life’s new Director of Resident Services. As many of you know, Cleydi came to MHP in 2000 as an AmeriCorps Project CHANGE intern. Cleydi joined the Americorps team even when she did not speak any or much English. Yet she was an effective and committed member.
After completing her two years of service, she was hired as the Site Coordinator for Amherst and Pembridge. Cleydi has led and supervised almost all the programs at Amherst and Pembridge, and due to her strong leadership, she was promoted to Sr. Programs Managers a few years ago. Now, she is our new Director of Resident Services. Cleydi has continued her service with Project CHANGE as the supervisor of members assigned to MHP every year. Please help me congratulate her on this new journey, Felicidades Cleydi.
Teenagers Are Struggling, and It’s Not Just Lockdown
Ms. Esfahani Smith is a doctoral student in clinical psychology and the author of “The Power of Meaning.” At the beginning of the pandemic, she wrote about how a key to surviving the mental-health trials of isolation is to look for meaning rather than happiness.
When schools shut down last spring, Carson Roubison, a charter school student in Phoenix, was initially relieved. There were some difficulties in those early days at home — when classes went online, Carson and his parents, both public-school teachers, had to share the sole family computer. But Carson’s stress levels fell as school became less demanding during the transition to distance learning.
“I wasn’t aware of the giant impact the pandemic would have,” he said, “so I was excited, to be honest, to have some time off school.”
But things changed in the fall. The academic load went back to prepandemic levels, even though learning was still remote. Carson, a senior, struggled to stay motivated. His mental health suffered. He hoped to attend community college the following fall, but grew increasingly “terrified” that the education he’d received in high school over the past year would leave him unprepared.
“I’m afraid I’m going to get to community college,” he said, “and be held to the same standards as past students, and fail. That’s the biggest source of my anxiety.”More on the pandemic and mental health
Carson’s story is not unique. The pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of millions. But adolescents have been hit especially hard. According to a national poll conducted in January by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, 46 percent of parents say their teenagers’ mental health has worsened during the pandemic. More alarmingly, a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the proportion of 12- to 17-year-olds visiting emergency rooms for mental health reasons rose 31 percent for most of 2020 compared with 2019. And this is all on top of an already existing mental health crisis among young people.
While many experts believe that the reason adolescents are struggling today is that they’re away from friends and school, a closer look at the research reveals a more complicated picture. According to psychologists who study adolescent resilience, one of the biggest threats to the well-being of today’s teenagers is not social isolation but something else — the pressure to achieve, which has intensified over the past year.
Psychologists define resilience as the ability to adapt well to stress. For decades, they have studied why some kids are more resilient in adversity than others. Suniya Luthar, emerita professor of psychology at Columbia’s Teachers College and a leading resilience researcher, believes the pandemic is a “natural experiment” that can help answer that question: When you expose adolescents to an event that changes their lives significantly, how do they cope?
Dr. Luthar began her career studying resilience among urban youth living in poverty in Connecticut in the 1990s. At the urging of one of her students at Yale, where she was teaching, she also started studying teenagers living in middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs like Westport, Conn., where many of the parents are high-achieving professionals who emphasize the value of status and achievement to their children.
Comparing these students with the poor, urban adolescents, she was shocked to discover that the suburban children were doing worse on drug and alcohol abuse. They also had higher rates of anxiety and depression as compared with national norms. Researchers knew that social conditions were important determinants of resilience, but they hadn’t known that living in success-oriented cultures was a risk factor.
In the years since, Dr. Luthar and her colleagues at Authentic Connections, a research group that works to foster resilience in school communities, have studied tens of thousands of teenagers attending “high-achieving schools,” which she defines as public and private institutions where students on average score in the top third on standardized tests. The students in these samples come from a variety of racial, regional and socioeconomic backgrounds. In one group of students Dr. Luthar studied, for example, one-third were members of ethnic and racial minorities and one-quarter came from homes where at least one parent did not attend college.
But regardless of these differences, many of them were struggling in the same way. In a paper published in 2020 in the academic journal American Psychologist, Dr. Luthar and her colleagues — the psychological researchers Nina Kumar and Nicole Zillmer — reviewed three decades’ worth of research findings showing that adolescents at high-achieving schools suffer from symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety at rates three to seven times higher than national norms for children their age.
The pandemic offered a rare reprieve for students — at first. Since 2019, Dr. Luthar and her colleagues have surveyed thousands of adolescents each year at public and private schools across the nation. Replicating findings of earlier research, these students reported suffering from anxiety and depression at higher rates than national norms before the pandemic. But when schools closed last spring, something unexpected happened — the well-being of these students actually improved. As classes and exams were canceled, grading moved to pass/fail and extracurricular activity ceased, they reported lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression compared with 2019.
But these improvements were short-lived. Dr. Luthar and her colleagues found that beginning in the fall of 2020, as schoolwork ramped back up, the mental health of adolescents returned to prepandemic levels or worse. According to research that will be published in Social Policy Report, a quarterly publication of the Society for Research in Child Development, the strongest predictor of depression among these students was perceived parental criticism and unreachable standards.
“Even though I’m trying my best, it never really goes the way I wished,” a student Dr. Luthar studied wrote, “and my mother adds stress because she is always saying that I NEED to have a 90 or higher averages in all my classes.”
Other research supports these findings. In a nationally representative study conducted by NBC News and Challenge Success, a nonprofit affiliated with Stanford’s education school, researchers studied over 10,000 high school students in the fall of 2020. Comparing the experience of these students with about 65,000 adolescents surveyed between 2018 and February 2020, these researchers, too, found that many students reported feeling more stressed about school during the fall of 2020 than before the pandemic. A chief cause of their stress: the pressure to achieve.
Nearly half of all students reported that the pressure to do well in school had increased since 2019, and over half said their school-related stress over all had risen. Grades, workload, time management, lack of sleep and college fears were the most commonly cited sources of stress. These findings held across socioeconomically diverse schools. At underresourced schools, students were more likely to report being stressed about family finances, according to Denise Pope, a founder of Challenge Success, but the top stressors were still grades, assessments and college.
“My school is giving too much work,” a 10th grader in this study wrote, “even though times are tough for everyone. At first, this was just a break from school, but now all I feel is stress, anxiety and pain.”
Parents appear to play a big role in this phenomenon. Fifty-seven percent of students said that their parents’ expectations for their performance stayed the same during the pandemic, while 34 percent said their expectations increased. The stereotype of the adolescent aloof from parental influence doesn’t seem to apply to these students, who report feeling more stressed about family pressure than peer pressure.
When Dr. Pope asks parents to define success, they inevitably say that they want their children to be happy and healthy, have loving relationships and give back to society. But when she asks children how they define success, many describe a narrow path: getting good grades, going to college and securing a high-paying job.
Dr. Pope believes the gap is due in part to how parents praise their kids. Many parents reward their children when they perform well, which sends a signal to the kids that the approval and love of their parents depends on how much they’re achieving. So inevitably, if they believe they are falling short of their parents’ expectations, their sense of worth and well-being suffers.
Larger cultural forces are also pushing students to define success narrowly. As inequality rises and two major recessions in the past decade have left millions out of work, many students may feel compelled to climb the ladder to ensure their economic security as adults. College admissions at top-tiered schools has become more selective over the same period of time, leaving students competing harder for fewer spots — only to receive an education that will likely leave them or their parents in debt for many years to come.
If we want more-resilient kids coming out of the pandemic, then we need to heed a lesson of this past year — that the pressure to achieve is crushing the spirits of many young people and should be dialed back. Parents can play a vital role here. They can help ease their children’s anxiety by reminding them that where they attend college will not make or break them — and that getting Bs does not equal failure.
They can encourage them to prioritize their health and well-being by getting enough sleep and making time for play and leisure. And above all, they can teach their children that loss is an inevitable part of life by speaking to them about the grief of the past year. This doesn’t mean parents should necessarily lower their standards. But they might emphasize different benchmarks for achievement, like those they themselves claim to most value for their children — happiness, health and love.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find a list of additional resources at SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.