May 12, 2021

John Thompson: The Thoughtful Conversation About Race And History That We Aren’t Having

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John Thompson writes from Oklahoma, one of the states where lawmakers on the right are trying to bar CRT and the 1619 Project from the classroom. Here’s what he sees happening there–and in other parts of the country where states are avoiding difficult conversations about race and history.

The Muskogee Phoenix nailed the key danger of House Bill 1775, which “would ban the teaching of ‘critical race theory’ and mandatory gender and diversity training on college and university campuses.” The Phoenix noted that HR 1775 is “part of a popular campaign to cancel the so-called cancel culture,” and it “would bring public education in Oklahoma dangerously close to becoming the Ministry of Truth and a dystopian existence of propaganda, surveillance and authoritarian politics.”

Signed into law by Gov. Kevin Stitt, its constitutionality will be challenged. But the best way to protect the First Amendment is to engage in conversations on the issues that some want banned from classrooms.

In February, Sen. Shane Jett told KFOR news that critical race theory (CRT), which is the target of the bill, is “causing young people in the class room to question the validity, the sanctity, the justice of the very system that has created the system where these dialogues can happen, and Critical Race Theory and Marxists activist(s) are taking advantage of American good will and trying to teach our children lies.”

Teachers aren’t supposed to sanctify political or economic systems, but the talking points get worse. The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA) said the passage of HR 1775 sends a signal that “Oklahomans will not tolerate efforts that force children to submit to the Marxist and racist theology.” But the OCPA headline message is that it bans racist teaching, and the Washington Times claims, “Democrats in Oklahoma Prove They’re Racists.”

A civil conversation could start with Education Week’s overview of the Trump administration’s anti-CRT campaign, which began with an effort to “ban schools from teaching curriculum designed around the 1619 Project,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times special issue which puts the “legacy of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at its center.”

Edweek explains:

Lawmakers in eight states have introduced legislation that may make it harder for teachers to talk about racism, sexism, and bias in the classroom.

… The bills use similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity trainings for federal workers.

Edweek notes, “President Joe Biden has since rescinded that order.”

As summarized by In These Times, CRT emerged in the 1980s to explain “how racial subordination could persist within a system predicated on ​‘equal rights.’”  I may be showing my age, but I’ve long read the theory as an analysis of “systemic racism” which is more constructive than blaming individuals for structural racism. As Tulane’s Robert Westley explained, due to a history of racist structures, “you can have racism without racists at this point.”

My complaint regarding the CRT and the 1619 Project has been its overly academic terminology. For instance, its term “implicit bias” should be useful in defusing the blame game; the term “interrogating Whiteness” is not. And as the Washington Post illustrates, “the 1619 a version of U.S. history that foregrounds (emphasis mine) the lives and experiences of Black Americans” provided the Heritage Foundation with sound bites for energizing Trump supporters.

When reading and rereading the 1619, I kept going back and forth, being wowed by many of the insights of today’s scholars while questioning why they didn’t mention the research on slavery we studied in the 1970s. Back then, disease and demography were appropriately emphasized. But we had no idea that today’s students would still read textbooks that downplayed the role of America’s crimes with the words, “Enslavement and armed aggression took their toll, but the deadliest killers were microbes, not muskets.”

I loved learning the 1619’s new information on how racism contributed to post-WWII urban segregation, the lack of health care for all, diets with too much sugar, and over-incarceration. The authors usually chose their words carefully. They couldn’t help it if their syntheses opened the door to attacks from the rightwing. Although I lacked the background to reach firm conclusions, my favorite chapters presented the case that cotton markets and slavery, not the railroads, drove the growth of 19th century American capitalism.

Reading Matthew Desmond’s and Mehrsa Baradaran’s contributions to the 1619 on the eve of the Covid shutdown, I was stunned by the detailed research they conducted on “financial rule-bending” that funded slavery and cotton. It “normalized” a “culture of speculation” and built a “particular kind of low-road capitalism.” The result was both: “slavery that didn’t just deny black freedom” but also “built white fortunes.”

Sure enough, as In These Times explains, the chapters which got me thinking the most were what prompted the Heritage Foundation campaign which has grown into today’s legal assault on the CRT in the classroom. It condemns the 1619 Project as “an effort to tarnish contemporary capitalism with an association with slavery.”

After Covid hit, I had the time to catch up on great research by Oklahomans such as Russell Cobb and Roxanna Dunbar-Ortiz, who document the financial shenanigans that drove the genocide of indigenous people and much of Jim Crow, and the scholarship inspired by the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Their findings are remarkably similar to many of the 1619’s.

For instance, the Tulsa World’s Randy Krehbiel presents both sides of the argument whether the desire to take the land owned by black Tulsans was a cause or an effect of the burning of Greenwood’s “Black Wall Street.” (Krehbiel concludes that the prime driver of the mass murder was anger by whites prompted by blacks seeking equal social status, as he also concludes that racism was “engrained” in every aspect of the Jim Crow culture.)

I’ve had wonderful guest-teaching experiences on the 1619 with students who appreciate the opportunity to wrestle with historical complexities. I worry that HR 1775 will criminalize lessons which introduce students to these authors.

Can a teacher be punished for using the Centennial Commission’s curriculum on the Tulsa Massacre?   Will teachers risk their jobs by drawing upon the “Killers of the Flower Moon” or KGOU’s discussions on the massacre’s anniversary? Could the Greenwood Rising History Center and the Sherwin Miller Jewish Museum lose funding at this polarized time when cross-generational, cross-cultural discussions are especially needed?  This law is one more sad issue that our troubled democracy must talk about. Will we let our students participate in the discussion?

Finally, this is just an introduction to the “cut and paste” legislation campaign in one state. Before the assault on CRT has passed, plenty of other states will have strange stories to tell. For instance, a Louisiana legislator talked about “the good, the bad and the ugly of slavery.” Sooner or later, however, we must have adult conversations about the type of wisdom which comes from our students when engaging in class discussions on meaningful topics.

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