Tag Archives: divisive concepts

Racists on the March

I teach the history of a stolen continent at a small rural college that stands on lands torn from its original Indigenous inhabitants. I do so in a country where the teaching of “divisive topics,” in parts and places, is now illegal. All Americans of conscience and character must resist these legislative book-burnings.

            The United States is neither more progressive nor more free than many countries around the globe.  Nor are we particularly happy, according to a recent study. The racists who govern the State of Alabama are only making matters worse. 

            In a bill signed the other day by Grand Master Governor Kay Ivey, Alabama has prohibited the teaching of “divisive concepts.” It’s worth looking at how the State defines that term. Any educator who teaches “that one sex, race or religion is inherently superior to another race, sex or religion;’” that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely on the basis of his or her race,” that “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously;” that “members of one race should attempt to treat others differently solely on the basis of race;” and that “an individual’s moral character is determined solely on the basis of his or her race, sex, or religion.”  Two parts of the original bill stated that teaching “that meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist” and that “with respect to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality,” were struck before the Governor signed.  So let’s get this straight.  Alabama Grand Old Party had the chance to endorse the principle that slavery and racism are betrayals of the American political tradition, and they chose not to.

            This is a problematic list, to say the least.  Teachers who tell their students that one racial group is superior to another are found most commonly only in the fever dreams of right-wing dingbats. Legislators wo feel that any criticism of the United States is pernicious and divisive, however, are increasingly common, though 99% of them are too chickenshit to take questions about their policies.  The Alabama law also said that any teacher who presented to their class the notion that “this state or the United States is inherently racist or sexist” or that asked their students to “accept, acknowledge, affirm, or assent to a sense of guilt, complicity, or a need to work harder on the basis of his or her sex or race” could face dismissal.

An installation at the Lynching Monument in Montgomery, depicting part of Alabama’s history that is totally not racist at all, according to Kay Ivey.

            I ask my students every semester to accept the possibility that they have benefited from the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in New York State.  Indeed, New York could not have become the Empire State through a systematic program of Indigenous dispossession that, at times, violated the laws of the United States. Indigenous peoples, who have merely asked that the state and the United States follow its own rules, would point out that many of us live on land taken illegally from Indigenous peoples. What I do not do, however, is teach the history of Alabama.  I touch on it a bit, of course, when I talk about “Indian Removal,” but the Deep South is not a big player in my courses, most of which focus on the Northeast and Native American history broadly construed.  But I think back to what I have read over the years.  I think of the fact that Alabama left the Union because they feared that Abraham Lincoln would abolish slavery, a “domestic institution” that even non-slaveholding Alabamans were willing to fight and die to defend.  No matter how low you were in Alabama, no matter how poor and how poorly-educated, so long as you were white there was a level beneath which you could never fall. Slavery guaranteed that there would always be a permanent underclass. You know the story of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, blown up by white supremacists who had no problem killing black children. Birmingham was the most segregated city in the United States throughout the 20th century.

            Alabama’s government leaders do not want to discuss the state’s long racist history and the lasting legacy of segregation and discrimination.  They do not want anyone to make them feel guilty about the past.  I get that.  But that sounds like a white people problem to me. Alabamans worry that teaching students about the long history of racism with which this nation, after so long, still contends, will weaken their patriotism, diminish their faith in America and its institutions.  That’s cowardly nonsense.  I have been teaching a long time.  Every single semester, I have students who come up to me and say that they are amazed and appalled that they learned none of what I taught them in high school.  They are not hurt by what I tell them.  They do not feel guilt. Rather, they feel anger at a state educational system that has lied to them and white washed its history.  After enrolling in my classes, and in those taught by my colleagues, these students emerge with an awareness of the yawning gap between the way things are and the way things ought to be, and the huge chasm between American principles and American reality.  The best of them dedicate their lives to making things better.  Do not think for a second that Alabama’s leaders don’t know this.  The issue, for them, which they lack the courage to state publicly, is that they prefer a status quo that heaps privilege of white people and that turns a blind eye towards the mountains of evidence of continuing racism and discrimination.  They don’t want young people to learn these lessons because they do not want things to get better.  The Alabamans who wrote this bill and approved of its content are a bunch of nasty, old racists. Their fingernails are cleaner than the troglodytes who cheered lynchings, or the former state governor who pledged himself to upholding discrimination forever, but their goals are precisely the same.