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A Fear of the Truth: The rationale behind laws to limit learning about Racism

“The moment you make racism more than an isolated incident, when you begin to talk about it as systemic, as baked into the way we live our lives … people don’t like that. It runs counter to a narrative that we want to tell ourselves about who we are. We have a narrative of progress, that we’re getting better.” – Gloria Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education

The irony of systemic racism is that it allows the system to deny systemic racism. My question about this is simple. What are you afraid of? A lot of people and multiple popular books talk about what some White people fear nowadays. They say White people fear the fact that they will soon be a minority in the country and as a result fear losing power. That’s only part of the problem.

For most of this nation’s history, White people have lied about people of color and how they have been brutally racist towards them. Until now, there has been no fear of the loss of White majority status. They have already lost that status in Texas, and California.

Despite this, in Texas, Whites are by far a majority of the states political leaders. The Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Comptroller of Public Accounts, Land Commissioner, Attorney General, Agriculture Commissioner, the three-member Texas Railroad Commission, two-thirds of the State Board of Education, and the Secretary of State are White. In the elected legislatures, 61% of the state House and Senate are white, although White Texans make up just 41% of the state’s population. In those two houses, just 4 Asians, 19 Blacks and 46 Hispanics hold office compared to 110 Whites.

Why is Texas important in this discussion. Because they buy more textbooks than any other state in the country, and they have a huge impact on the rest of the states history textbook purchases. If they can keep their textbooks full of lies and inaccuracies and devoid of any mention of systemic racism, then other states will be stuck with the same types of history books.

The New York Times recently reported, “conservative pundits, lawmakers and others are arguing that schools are teaching students to see race where they never would on their own and promoting reverse discrimination in an effort to unravel disparate racial outcomes.”

School districts around the country including some here in Southeast Wisconsin, are now banning the use of anything that calls racism systemic. This is the same exact thing we saw in this country when the Civil Rights Movement advanced a different version of the nation’s history. The South fought back by claiming they were protecting their “way of life” rather than admitting they were protecting a racist system called Jim Crow. Why did they do it? Because they were not willing to be honest.

The level of dishonesty in elected officials is growing by the day. This is occurring on the federal, state and local levels. I have said many times before that this backslash is not a backlash, it’s simply standard operating procedure. Whites are ashamed of their role in the racist history of this nation and instead of many of them confronting this and dealing with the consequences, they would rather lie about it, and prevent other Whites from even having the conversation.

When we are struggling to even tell the truth in our schools, what makes people believe anything will ever change?

The most popular program to help people with alcohol abuse issues is the 12-Step program by Alcoholics Anonymous. The first step in the program is one that should be adopted by a nation with an addiction to lies about racism.

“Honesty: After many years of denial, recovery can begin with one simple admission of being powerless over alcohol or any other drug a person is addicted to. Their friends and family may also use this step to admit their loved one has an addiction.”

As I’ve traveled across the state and around the nation talking about race and racism, I see many more White people these past several years who are willing to confront this history. Their desire to learn and have conversations keeps me optimistic. However, I’m not naive enough to not see the pushback and peer pressure they face. This comes from friends, family members, neighbors etc. who want to stay in a state of denial.

If America can’t get past the first step how will it ever get to a state of recovery?

As the nation grapples with conversations about race and racism in a way that it never has before, many are surprised by the pushback. This pushback should be expected because the habits of lies about racism are entrenched and baked into the psyche of America. Germany and South Africa have been able to come to a place where they honestly talk about The Holocaust and Apartheid because those two were both fairly short lived periods in their respective histories and occurred within the living memory of many who are alive today. In America, racism has been around for over four hundred years in the lives of Blacks and Native Americans. The past is the present to both groups because the battle seems to be never-ending.

The present attempts to deny systemic racism will set the nation back. The fact that community after community is actually battling to even have a conversation about this, shows how strongly they are imperiled by systemic racism. Denying racism is a clear sign of the systemic nature of the problem.

Those courageous White people in small town America who are fighting to keep these conversations alive are outnumbered and fighting the battle of their lives. There is only so much that people of color can do to help. Racism is a problem in the White community. They will have to grapple with it and fight to solve it because they have the power that communities of color don’t have.

I am often asked by Whites in those communities what they can do when surrounded by people who are on the other side of the fence. I tell them they must be willing to fight the good fight and question those who deny racism to find out what their true motivations are.

Having the power to control the narrative is a tool to perpetuate the status quo. When I hear that school districts like Elmbrook have lost the battle I’m disappointed but I have not given up. Germantown too had banned the teaching of what’s known as critical race theory but rescinded the ban.

Critical race theory is being used as a “buzzword” to describe anything related to systemic racism. The conversations and debates are rarely about the principle itself because most who criticize it have never delved into what it actually is. Instead they want to simply call it some Marxist philosophy that divides. They are not willing to study its’ tenets themselves.

Janel George wrote an article for the American Bar Association on Critical Race Theory (CRT) in January.

“CRT is not a diversity and inclusion “training” but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship. [legal scholar Kimberlé] Crenshaw—who coined the term “CRT”—notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”

This current pushback comes from former President Donald Trump issuing an executive order in September 2020, excluding from federal contracts any diversity and inclusion training interpreted as containing “Divisive Concepts,” “Race or Sex Stereotyping,” and “Race or Sex Scapegoating.”

He opened the Pandora’s box that has blossomed into this current battle. He did not do anything unique. Many in the White community have argued for years, including well known historians, that racism is a myth. They often find a Balck person such as Senator Tim Scott to cosign their denials. In his rebuttal to President Biden’s address to Congress Scott said this among other things.

“Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country. It’s backwards to fight discrimination with different types of discrimination. And it’s wrong to try to use our painful past to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”

The fact that he is the only Black Republican member of the U.S. Senate makes it appear that he was just used as a puppet to get their message out. Imagine a White Senator saying the same things Scott said.

What painful past is Scott talking about? The painful past which includes the racism he’s in denial about. The painful past in the real world includes the painful present for people of color because of people like Scott and those who put him on a stage to embarrass himself.

What many are afraid to see and admit is that racism American style, was so transparent that copious evidence was left for all to see. When people defend President Thomas Jefferson his words in Notes on the State of Virginia tell how he really felt about Black people.

“Comparing them by their faculties of memory, reason, and imagination, it appears to me, that in memory they are equal to the whites; in reason much inferior, as I think one could scarcely be found capable of tracing and comprehending the investigations of Euclid; and that in imagination they are dull, tasteless, and anomalous…I advance it therefore as a suspicion only, that the blacks, whether originally a distinct race, or made distinct by time and circumstances, are inferior to the whites in the endowments both of body and mind.”

On March 21, 1861 Confederate Vice President Alexander H. Stephens gave his famous Cornerstone Speech declaring the necessity of breaking away from the Union and telling us in no uncertain terms why the Civil War was fought and the basic foundation of the Confederacy.

“The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution…The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error…Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone 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 normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

These truths are still being denied today. The honesty shown by Stephens would be a welcome relief today when even racists don’t want to be called racist.

The trail of truths, and evidence of systemic racism can’t be honestly denied and debated so the proponents of the lies today, simply use ad nauseam arguments and attacks to make their points. They are unwilling and incapable of defending these views in open forums without attacking those who disagree with them and then turn and say that their proponents are stifling conversation.

I will finish with the words spoken by Fredrick Douglas on August 3, 1857.

“The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress…If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others.”

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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.