The Spokesman-Review

Opinion

History, civics collide – needlessly

A few days ago, a high school student in Sarasota, Fla., failed history and another failed civics. As a result, one wound up shot in the chest and the other jailed on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Here’s the story, as reported by the Sarasota Herald Tribune: On the last Friday in April, an 18-year-old white kid named Daniel Azeff and a friend went riding downtown in a pickup, yelling racially disparaging remarks and waving a Confederate battle flag. Azeff’s grandfather, Joseph Fischer, told the paper he has cautioned his grandson repeatedly about his fascination with that dirty banner. Azeff, he said, does not really understand what the flag means.

If so, he’s hardly alone in his ignorance. A generation of apologists for the wannabe nation symbolized by that flag has done an effective job of convincing the gullible and the willfully ignorant that neither the nation, the flag nor the Civil War in which both were bloodily repudiated, has anything to do with slavery. It’s just “heritage,” they say, as though heritage were a synonym for “good.” As though Nazis, white South Africans and Rwandans did not have heritage, too.

For the record: In explaining its decision to secede, South Carolina cited “an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” Georgia noted its grievances against the North “with reference to the subject of African slavery.” Mississippi said, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” To which Confederate “vice president” Alexander Stephens added: “Our new government is founded upon … the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

So the notion the Confederacy and its symbols have nothing to do with slavery is tiresome, silly and delusional. In choosing to adopt one of those symbols that night, David Azeff took a history test of sorts – and failed.

As noted, Michael Mitchell’s test was in civics. Police say Mitchell, who is 18, black and a student at Sarasota Military Academy, saw Azeff’s flag, took offense and, when the white kid parked and walked down the street, confronted him. Azeff denied being a racist; he was, he said, just exercising his First Amendment rights. Police say the argument escalated, until Mitchell pulled a gun and shot Azeff in the chest.

Thus did Mitchell fail his own test. This is America. Daniel Azeff has a perfect right to express virtually any opinion he chooses, no matter how asinine or provocative, without being shot for it.

Thankfully, Azeff is expected to make a full recovery. Meantime, Mitchell, said to be a good kid who has never been in trouble before, remains jailed in lieu of $50,000 bail. It is difficult not to see in them a certain symmetry.

That’s not an argument of moral equivalence: Mitchell allegedly pulled a gun, so the moral weight for what happened rests squarely upon his shoulders.

And yet it’s also true that each teenager had what the other lacked. One knew his rights, the other, his history. But neither realized you cannot fully appreciate the one without understanding the other. So each young man fell into the other’s blind spot.

If we were a people with the courage to teach our racial history fearlessly, and the foresight to inculcate in our children a reverence for civil liberties, this tragedy might never have happened. We are not those people. And because we aren’t, these two boys hurtled toward collision, hopped up on grievances and rage they were ill-equipped to speak – or hear. They took a test that night in Sarasota, and let no one be surprised they failed.

They never had a chance.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His e-mail address is lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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