Teaching that slavery is a dark chapter in American history shouldn’t be controversial. And it’s dishonest to pretend that the final chapter was written with the end of the Civil War.
That would disavow the continuing remnants of a racist society that included public lynchings of Black men, Jim Crow laws, the Ku Klux Klan, segregation, redlining and the fight for both civil rights and voting rights ... battles that are still being waged today.
While we like to consider ourselves “enlightened,” many among us prefer not to cast a spotlight on what we once were and, unfortunately, what many still are.
As a result, educators in our public schools and universities now find themselves in the crosshairs of a manufactured controversy referred to as critical race theory — a phrase spawned by right-wing groups and media.
The groups behind this can be traced to the Koch money tree which backed the Tea Party movement of a decade ago. The Tea Party was a response to a Black man in the White House (which led to the familiar cry, “I want my country back”) and to the growing federal debt.
Since Barack Obama is no longer president and Republican lawmakers don’t care about deficits (at least while they hold the White House), conservative groups must fabricate issues that play on the fear or emotion (preferably both) of their voting base. Consequently, transgender athletes are now a threat to young girls, easier voting access equates to fraud and teaching young people about discrimination is “indoctrination.”
When school superintendent Jeff Porter in Maine denounced white supremacy in the wake of the George Floyd murder and other recent events, all it took was one uninformed parent, with the backing of the right-wing financed group, No Left Turn in Education, to give rise to the fight against teaching about systemic racism.
This is part of a coordinated effort involving, by some estimates, at least 165 local and national groups that are opposed to bringing the discussion of race and gender inequality and discrimination into the classroom.
Apparently, the goal is for young people to be as ignorant about our history as too many adults — to avoid besmirching the idea of American exceptionalism.
While taking a brief break from trying to undermine election results in other states, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt jumped into the controversy when he described critical race theory as “a radical new curriculum.”
Predictably kowtowing to those on the far right who he needs in the race for governor, Schmidt said in an e-mail this is the “Far Left’s new strategy to teach our students that they should be ashamed of America and that our skin color should define who we are.”
Schmidt’s political posturing ignores the fact that for more than 400 years, skin color has defined who some people are. It was skin color that put some people in the chains of slavery, that limited where they could live, where they could eat and even whether they could drink from public water fountains.
It was skin color that made it more difficult for certain people to vote — and still does thanks to continuing efforts by Schmidt and Republican lawmakers across the country.
And it was skin color that made it acceptable for certain people to be executed without a trial, without their executioners being held accountable and, even today, without some police officers being brought to justice when excessive force leads to death.
No one is asking our young people to carry the guilt of more than four centuries of oppression and injustice. Despite the claims of those on the far right, no one is saying we should be ashamed of being white or being an American.
But neither should we try to whitewash the past and ignore the atrocities, the systemic racism and the discrimination that haven’t just been tolerated but have become ingrained within our society.
This so-called radical new curriculum isn’t so new. It’s simply bringing into the classroom the lessons that some among us have experienced all their lives. It’s an acknowledgment that we can’t become better people if we don’t understand the wrongs that have occurred.
Discussing the role of race in America isn’t theory, but history.
Whether or not we are troubled by this knowledge isn’t something that’s determined by a social studies teacher but by our upbringing, by our own measure of right and wrong, by our own concept of justice and injustice.
That begins at home and with the people we are surrounded by. And perhaps that is the biggest fear of those consumed by right-wing media and conspiracies that are much more mysterious in their origin than the study of race in this nation.
Ignorance, like racism, isn’t easy to overcome. In some, it’s a permanent condition.
Learning about who we are shouldn’t be cast in a political light. This should be about trying to understand what it’s like to walk in another individual’s shoes and becoming a better person from the experience.
Rod Haxton is publisher of The Scott County Record.