Residents speak up at a Baraboo School Board meeting on Monday after a photo of Nazi-saluting students went viral. Officials insisted the Wisconsin school is “a hate-free environment” — a response that’s depressingly familiar, and wrong. (Tim Damos/Baraboo News Republic via AP)
Columnist

This week’s dose of societal deterioration arrived early, in the form of freshly scrubbed teenage boys. The boys, students at Wisconsin’s Baraboo High School, were apparently at prom last spring when they decided — more than 60 of them — to pose for a photo. Many of the grinning boys further decided, dressed in their dinner jackets and boutonnieres, that their communal pose would be to extend their arms in a Nazi salute.

On Monday, this photo surfaced online (under the hashtag #BarabooProud) and immediately went viral. The photographer later maintained he’d merely asked the boys to wave, though the gesture didn’t resemble a wave made by any hand-possessing human. In response to an outpouring of outrage, the superintendent issued a statement: “We want to be very clear. The Baraboo School District is a hate-free environment.”

If this response sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes the bland assurances recited by officials whenever poison bubbles up in America.

“Hate is not an American value,” said then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, following the deadly 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville. “America is better than this,” wrote Joe Biden on Facebook this summer, in response to migrant children being separated from their families. “This type of hate has no home here,” insisted a New Hampshire alderman just this weekend after a public gazebo was desecrated with swastikas.

In response to various acts of racism, sexism, bigotry and violence, President Barack Obama used the phrase “That’s not who we are” so often — at least 46 times, as compiled in one video montage — that it had the unintended result of upending his assertion. Maybe that’s exactly who we are: a country that is frequently racist, sexist, bigoted and violent.

So, to the Baraboo superintendent: If your defense is, “We’re a hate-free environment,” but there’s a photo of 60 of your students Sieg Heil-ing on the steps of the county courthouse, then maybe you should consider the possibility that you are, in fact, a hate-filled environment.

You should also consider the possibility that a useful response wouldn’t be to deny it but rather to interrogate it. Maybe something like: Our students did an awful thing. We’re trying to figure out why, and how we can have the conversations to help make sure they never want to do it again.

In the photo, only one boy seems visibly uncomfortable with the jovial salute happening around him. His name is Jordan Blue, and he stands in the top-right corner of the photograph, a combination of anxious and horrified. He explained to a journalist on Monday that he would have left the photo if there’d been time to step away.

Blue also provided a little context: “These classmates have been bullying me since middle school,” he said. “I have struggled with it my whole life and nothing has changed. These are the boy[s] of the Class of 2019.”

He didn’t specify whether there was a nature to the bullying — if he’s Jewish, or gay, or nerdy, or any number of identities that adolescents have often turned into targets — but it hardly matters. In a separate interview, Blue suggested that his classmates saw the sieg heil as a joke, which may well be the case. Still, what he described made it sound like this kind of callous attitude wasn’t an isolated incident at Baraboo. It wasn’t a wart on an otherwise unblemished student body but part of the central nervous system.

(The last time Baraboo was in the national news, it was because students at this school 300 miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line were driving around with Confederate flags on their cars. A tribute, they said, to a deceased classmate.)

Of course, this isn’t just about 60 high school students in Baraboo. A 2005 poll found that over half of Americans didn’t know or responded incorrectly when asked what Auschwitz, Dachau and Treblinka were.

Discrimination is baked into the country’s DNA, from founders supporting the enslavement of black people, to police beating women who were marching for the right to vote in 1917, to 1980s politicians choosing to ignore a fatal epidemic because most of the victims appeared to be gay men.

The shame over an incident like Baraboo’s shouldn’t be merely over the fact that it happened. It should be felt over the fact that when it happens, we pretend like nobody could have seen it coming.

If anything makes our country worthy of pride, it’s the fact that in the grand sweep of history, we do try to put events like those in the past tense. We pass better laws, elect different people, expand human rights instead of contract them.

For that to happen, though, we need to clearly and loudly and without excuses diagnose the problem: This is who we are. Now let’s try to make it who we were.

Monica Hesse is a columnist writing about gender and its impact on society. For more visit wapo.st/hesse.