Tag Archives: Critical Race Theory

Laugh? Or Cry??

To pick up a newspaper today is to enter wacko world, where right-wingers’ fears (those “Others” are voting! That means the election is rigged!!) and their obsessions with sex (it’s dirty! protect the children!) are bursting out all over.

I recently stumbled across this report from the Daily Beast, and you really need to read it to believe it. An essay from The Guardian by Arwa Mahdawi captured my reaction:

The latest absurd example of conservative cancel culture comes to us courtesy of Moms for Liberty, a rightwing advocacy group who are trying to dictate what books Tennessee public school kids can read. I don’t know if any of these moms own a dictionary, but they might want to look up the definition of “liberty”. And then they might want to change their name to Moms for Thought Control.

The moms have been very methodical: they’ve sent the Tennessee Department of Education a detailed spreadsheet outlining their complaints about the books being foisted on their children. It makes for unintentionally hilarious reading. A book about Galileo is “anti-church.” A book about seahorses contains too many details about the mating rituals of seahorses. A book about Native Americans is “divisive” and “paints white people in negative light.” A book about Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate an all-white public elementary school, is “divisive.” (Racists love using the word “divisive”, have you noticed? How dare you bring up slavery and segregation! You’re being divisive!) A book about Greek mythology is a little too “graphic and scary”. A book about Martin Luther King contains “photographs of political violence”. The whole thing reads like the unhinged ravings of a book club from hell.

It’s hard not to laugh at this exercise of attempted “cancellation”–especially since one of the many accusations leveled at liberals is that it is the Left that has developed “cancellation culture.” But ultimately, it isn’t funny. It actually is representative of what passes for today’s right wing philosophy.

As Mahdawi points out, this attempts to dictate (okay, censor) the Tennessee curriculum is part of the Right’s frantic effort to rewrite American history. You can see that obsession in the sudden discovery of and opposition to Critical Race Theory (which none of its opponents can define. To them it just means anything that is less than complimentary about white people). Mahdawi notes that at least eight Republican states (including Tennessee) have introduced laws restricting how race can be taught in public schools this year and nearly 20 additional states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation

Far from being a kooky fringe group, Moms for Liberty are part of a very well-coordinated culture war. Whether it’s abortion or CRT, the playbook is always the same. The rightwing media whips up outrage; deliberately vague laws are passed off the back of that outrage; advocacy groups diligently weaponize these laws at a local level. “We are seeing what appear to be coordinated efforts to challenge books, not purely based on the content of the individual book, but based on the fact that they teach history from a particular viewpoint,” an executive from the National Coalition Against Censorship, told The Daily Beast. “We’re also seeing entire lists of books being challenged, as opposed to individual titles.”

So what’s the moral to this story? Essentially, it’s that you shouldn’t underestimate the right. It’s very easy to laugh at a bunch of rightwing moms clutching their pearls over sexy seahorses – but there’s nothing funny about the systemic, organised way in which conservatives are trying to rewrite history and restrict freedom of speech.

The real threat comes from the tendency of rational folks to dismiss these efforts–to chuckle, shake our heads and ignore it, because “it can’t happen here.” Depending upon your definition of “it,” it can happen here–as we learn more about the Trump effort to overturn the election, we learn how close that effort came and how much lasting damage it did to America’s democratic norms. We may not be quite ready to sew Hester Prynne’s “A” on women’s shirts, but we keep edging closer, and there are active movements to deny LGBTQ citizens a lot more than bakery products, among other efforts to return us to the 1950s. Or before.

These people may be nuts, but in the absence of a robust and determined protection of our rights, lunatics can be very effective.

 

Preferred History

A few days ago, I came across a Facebook post that spoke to the current frenzy about “critical race theory.” The post was actually directed at defenses of confederate statutes and the confederate flag, but what really struck me was the following litany about the contents of most history classes. 

You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B, DuBois
You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa or Wilmington.
You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves.
You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street.
You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”
You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals.
You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race.
You learned about “states rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession.
Privilege is having history rewritten so that you don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts.

At the conclusion of the list was the following: “Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge this reality. You have a choice. – Jim Golden”

I don’t know who Jim Golden is or was, but I think this list is an excellent illustration of what is at stake in the current fury over the teaching of history.

No history class can cover every aspect of America’s past. Selectivity is inevitable–but it is abundantly clear that the selection incorporated into most high school history texts and consuming the majority of class time in most of the nation’s schools has been wildly unbalanced. 

How many American high school students have been taught that the Civil War was about “state’s rights”? What percentage of them were ever confronted with this statement about  the genesis of the war?

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin …

The quoted paragraph is only one of several that can be found at the link–which is to an article from the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates simply assembles the official statements of the “Southern Gentlemen” who led the Confederate States into secession.

Elsewhere, I found  this one, from Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, rebutting the position of the abolitionists:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, 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. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. 

The only state right that was being defended was the right to own black human beings. American students have a right to know that.

Granted, a curriculum that only included the information that is currently not being taught would be as one-sided and inaccurate as the curriculum that is still predominantly in use. What is needed is a syllabus balanced between the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly– lesson plans that accurately show students where we have been, and how far we have come–lessons that would provide them with a context for deciding how far we still have to go.

Most of the people in my age cohort didn’t learn actual history–we were spoon-fed an inaccurate, Whitewashed mythology that didn’t prepare us for the shock most of us felt when we learned the less admirable elements of our past. Thanks to the work of historians and scholars, however, we now know a great deal about those less admirable elements, and revelations continue to emerge.

All the White Nationlists’ hysteria about Critical Race Theory will not succeed in obscuring the reality of America’s Original Sin. What it doesn’t obscure is the racism that prompts it.