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Attacks on teaching Systemic Racism mirror the shrieking fear tactics used by Joe McCarthy

“Because he’s weak. And don’t ask me to get inside the mind of a liberal, progressive, socialist, Marxist like President Biden.” – Ron Johnson, U.S. Senator from Wisconsin

“Johnson means them all as epithets rather than ideological descriptors. You can see that in that he doesn’t know the differences between them.” – Kennan Ferguson, UW-Milwaukee political science professor

Lately Republican lawmakers and those opposed to the teaching of systemic racism have gone on the warpath using the word “Marxist” to make their points. They are attacking the principle of systemic racism by attacking the concept known as Critical Race Theory. Their arguments are really not about Critical Race Theory, which has been around for 40 years. Instead it is a systematic attack on free speech. It is an attempt to kill a more honest approach to teaching American history. They are using attacks on Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project as terms to rile up their base.

They are doing everything in their power to stifle conversations about racism at a time that the Black Lives Matter Movement has forced a racial reckoning in this country. It’s not just about George Floyd. People of color have been fighting to demand their rights for most of this nation’s history.

One word has been in the middle of these attacks recently, Marxist. A good friend of mine who lives in one of Milwaukee’s exurban counties has been verbally attacked and called a Marxist on a number of occasions. She is on the frontlines and has been for a number of years trying to bring people together to talk honestly about race and racism. Her efforts have been met with threats and false accusations about her hating White people.

This aggressive personal attack is one of the primary tools of those fighting to maintain the status quo. As I’ve said and written multiple times, it’s about preventing open minded White people from learning and having conversations about systemic racism. This is based on a fallacy called an ad hominem attack where one attacks the person or organization without addressing the argument they are making.

Back in 1950 we saw a similar situation led by the Republican U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy. For four years he put a stranglehold on dissent and quashed those he saw as enemies of the state by accusing people of being “a Communist.” The Miller Center at the University of Virginia said this about what became known as McCarthyism.

“In the early 1950s, American leaders repeatedly told the public that they should be fearful of subversive Communist influence in their lives. Communists could be lurking anywhere, using their positions as school teachers, college professors, labor organizers, artists, or journalists to aid the program of world Communist domination. This paranoia about the internal Communist threat—what we call the Red Scare—reached a fever pitch between 1950 and 1954, when Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, a right-wing Republican, launched a series of highly publicized probes into alleged Communist penetration of the State Department, the White House, the Treasury, and even the US Army. During Eisenhower’s first two years in office, McCarthy’s shrieking denunciations and fear-mongering created a climate of fear and suspicion across the country. No one dared tangle with McCarthy for fear of being labeled disloyal.”

The Republican Party and President Dwight Eisenhower did nothing openly to challenge McCarthy until he began attacking the president himself. McCarthy used the label “Communist” to destroy reputations in much the same way that these groups today are using the term Marxist.

In state after state, community after community, attempts have been underway to do racial equity work. This entails a real honest conversation and teaching about the ugly parts of American history.

The attempts to end this type of work and keep further generations of children miseducated about racism will hurt not just White children. Currently more than half of all children under the age of one is a child of color and more than half of children in public schools are students of color.

The attacks on teaching about systemic racism will prevent children of color from learning truths that were hidden from many for generations. The events of 2020 looked to them like a time when they thought they’d be able to learn an honest history. White children will grow up in a world where those of their generation are a minority in this country. This will not change. They need to be prepared for living in a world of diversity that is nothing like the world their parents, grandparents etc. lived in.

Unfortunately, these attacks on this learning will leave them unprepared for that world. Their parents are doing them a disservice by not fighting back against these attacks. These children will be left with a huge hole in their understanding of the world around them.

As those in suburban and exurban communities claim they are protecting their children from “feeling bad” about being White, what they are actually doing is miseducating their children and doing them further harm. As I’ve traveled around the state and country taking to mostly White audiences about racism, I’ve heard a lot of White people tell me that they wished they had heard the truth before. They say that the way they see the world would have been changed had they been taught the truth.

The attacks on teaching anything related to the real history of this country have been based on a false assumption that if you tell the truth about American history White children will be ashamed and feel bad about being White.

White people have been well aware of the way they’ve acted for four hundred years in this country. During spectacle lynchings between 1880 and 1960, White parents brought their children and grandchildren to participate. When you look at images of the Civil Rights campaign in Milwaukee and other places, it’s plain to see White children in the front of the lines yelling racial epithets and holding swastikas and Confederate flags.

Did those children feel bad about being White? No they did not. In fact it was more of a badge of honor. Now we are to believe that because the schools have lied about this history for decades, it is somehow harmful to White children to learn it now.

Those sentiments are disingenuous. They are not just keeping the truth from White children, students of color will be miseducated as well. They will continue to live in a world where their schools disregard their lived experiences by leaving out the stories of their community.

We will look back on this time and regret that we did not fight back harder. Some of those White children who tend to be more woke than their parents will rebel against the lies. They will tell their parents they want to hear the truth.

If you live in one of these communities or states that has proposed or passed legislation to end the teaching of anything related to systemic racism, you must act now. You can’t wait around for someone else to fix this problem.

You must be courageous enough to fight back. McCarthy was eventually defeated after ruining the lives of a lot of Americans. These current attacks will do similar damage. Personal attacks on those who are trying to tell the truth for the first time will lead to silence among the people who are supposed to be their allies. Many of those who were woke last summer in the aftermath of George Floyd, have gone back to sleep.

Who is leading this effort? There are at least two prominent organizations you must be aware of. The right-wing Goldwater Institute is a major player, providing talking points and model legislation. This is from their website.

“The adherents of Critical Race Theory advocate for the destruction of businesses, public buildings, and monuments. College students who shout down their peers, professors, or guest speakers use the language of Critical Race Theory when they demand that others should be silenced because of their beliefs. K-12 materials based on Critical Race Theory teach that we should be less tolerant of ideas with which we disagree, making children ill-prepared to respectfully hear and debate various points of view in the future. Federal employees have had to undergo training sessions where workers are told that “virtually all White people contribute to racism. All of these concepts create a culture of fear, where Americans are told to focus on their differences and to reward victimization. Even worse, Critical Race Theory sets up people for failure by telling certain individuals that America was not created for them—that the American Dream was never theirs—when, in fact, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is promised to all Americans, regardless of gender, color, or social circumstance.”

The last sentence in this diatribe is particularly interesting to me. To tell a ball-faced lie that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” was promised to all in the Declaration of Independence when at the same time nearly 700,000 Black people were held in bondage is absurd. The New York Times reports that the Goldwater Institute has provided a model for the type of legislation that has now passed in 15 states to end the teaching of anything related to telling the truth about systemic racism.

The assertion that “All of these concepts create a culture of fear, where Americans are told to focus on their differences and to reward victimization” is using the language of the Civil Rights Movement to make an argument that is the exact opposite of what that movement stood for.

Another player in this game is the right-wing Heritage Foundation. This is an attack on these ideas presented in a December 2020 report they wrote.

The target is a free-market system that rewards hard work, ability, and other virtuous traits. Other CRT terms that have specific and unique meanings when used by its practitioners are “equity,” “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “people of color.” CRT speakers have also developed peculiar turns of phrase that are specific to the group; supporters are said to be “in allyship” or “in relationship.” The U.S. is said to be a “carceral state…The Black Lives Matter Insurgency. The year 2020, with its protests and riots—as well as the overwhelming acceptance by the media, professional sports, corporations, the academy, and virtually all power centers, that America is irredeemably racist and must overhaul its entire system—has demonstrated that CRT’s teachings have moved beyond the ivory towers and ivy walls…The dissemination of curricular content and instruction based on CRT in K–12 schools is second only in scope to the presence of CRT in post-secondary instruction, where CRT originated…The material distracts educators and students away from rigorous learning content, while also teaching ideas that undermine the value of individual liberty and America’s founding ideals and further embedding the concept of systemic racism in the public conscious.”

This is a coordinated attack on ideas the right considers to be “dangerous” to their way of seeing the world. Unless those who are fighting back understand that this is much more than a handful of angry parents in suburbia, they will never defeat this attack.

Describing the Black Lives Matter Movement as an insurgency brings to mind the language used by the military in Iraq. They want White people to see those who support the Black Lives Matter Movement as an enemy.

If you pay close attention to the laws being proposed and passed around the country you will see just as the Washington Post reported that, “Republican-led legislatures are or have already passed legislation (whose wording is remarkably similar or identical, reflecting a coordinated effort) with such restrictions.”

A coordinated counter-effort to end these practices must include naming the names of individuals and organizations leading this attempt to sugar coat American history. There is a concerted effort to limit free speech by attacking those who want the truth of American history to be taught. This is a serious battle that must be treated as such.

Simply complaining about these people will not work. If you think you can simply ignore them you are playing into their hands. They want you to see them as a small vocal minority when they are spreading their messages to more and more White communities. Their followers will become louder and more numerous. Don’t fall asleep when the battle requires you to be awoke and alert.

© Photo

Library of Congress

About The Author

Reggie Jackson

As an award-winning Senior Columnist for the Milwaukee Independent, Reggie Jackson covers a range of African American issues. He is also co-founder of Nurturing Diversity Partners, and volunteers as Head Griot for America’s Black Holocaust Museum (ABHM) in Bronzeville.