The Moral Imperative to Teach About America's Racial Problems, Past and Present

The most recent locus of murderous racism is Jacksonville, Florida, where this past Saturday a 21-year-old White man used a weapon onto which he had scrawled swastikas and other hateful messages to kill three Black people.  I should be clear, however, that I am not truly sure that that is the "most recent" event that would fit this description.  After all, it has been three full days, and this is the United States in 2023, where hatred and White nationalist violence are now the depressing norm.

In any event, imagine for a moment that Florida's governor was not running for President and had not been feeding and intensifying reactionary prejudices for the last four-plus years.  Yes, it is a stretch to ask ourselves to picture a version of that man without his defining political motivations, but if we try, we would be left with a person who has shown no sign of being a person in the sense that we usually define personhood: capable of empathy, moved by unselfish thoughts, looking to engage in acts of kindness, at peace with himself and the world around him, or motivated by the desire to help all of his fellow human beings.

Of course, DeSantis's deficits in all of those dimensions in large part are what drives his depressingly divisive political campaign, but even if he were somehow not campaigning for higher office, he would simply be the wrong person to turn to for comfort in a crisis.  At best stiff and robotic, he would be incapable of soothing a devastated community under any circumstances.  And back in our reality, where that community is keenly aware of just how much their governor has turned his voting base against them, it is hardly surprising that he was booed when he tried to seize the moment to show his version of leadership by walking in and grabbing the spotlight.

That his remarks were carefully tailored to feed the idea that such murders are simply the acts of inexplicable monsters only amplified the harm of his presence.  And the sheer nerve of his saying, "We are not going to let people be targeted based on their race," was bitterly laughable.  Apparently, his definition of "targeted" is conveniently literal -- and there is no evidence that he is willing take action even on that narrowest of bases.

This is a useful moment to recall that the person who has harnessed the attack on "woke" to advance his political ambitions -- a strategy so over the top that he recently tried to echo Churchill's famous "We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, ..." speech -- still has no fixed definition of his favorite word other than insisting that racism can never be systemic.  As he said in Jacksonville, the racist murderer was a "scumbag," that is, just another twisted guy with a screw loose whose actions came from nowhere and were not fed by the hatred coursing through the country and state where he lived.

As one Florida-based pundit wrote: "If Churchill’s oratory about a life and death struggle against a Nazi invasion could be recast to a complaint about rainbow stickers and unvarnished Black history, well then anything is possible."  Indeed, in DeSantis's June speech in Iowa, he replaced Churchill's first phrase, "We shall fight on the beaches," with "We will fight the woke in education."  Attacking the teaching of honest history is not merely one of the governor's many battles, then, but his primary obsession.  From his "Don't say gay" law, to ending tenure (in all but name) at the state's universities, to destroying the state's most renowned liberal arts college, to signing a law forbidding teachers and professors (at risk of being fired) from teaching "divisive" concepts, the clear goal of his agenda is to force educators to abandon the truth.

As much as one small man has made this crusade his brand, however, the resurgence of openly racist attitudes and the decreasing willingness even to bother with dogwhistles are hardly isolated phenomena.  Yes, Florida's man does seem to bring extra (well deserved) condemnation upon himself -- through, for example, his decisions to reject AP African-American Studies in his state's public schools and to defend the insane claim that there were "benefits" of slavery that enslaved people used later in life -- but he is hardly alone.  His political idol, whose current grift involves selling his own mugshot, continues to be even more willing to break almost every norm regarding discussions of race and White supremacy in this country.

And even though DeSantis clearly believes in the awful things that he has done, he would not be cranking up the race-based divisiveness if he did not see an audience for such ugly tactics.  After all, one of his opponents in the Republican presidential competition (such as it is) just referred to a Black congresswoman and a Black scholar as "modern grand wizards of the modern KKK" (modern-squared reverse racists, apparently).  Will the two other non-White candidates in the Republican field firmly and unambiguously condemn such bigotry?  There is every reason to doubt it, because both of them try simultaneously to trade on their "only in America" rise from reviled minority to the upper reaches of power while insisting that somehow they were and are not the victims of racism — which, they insist, does not exist in America.

And what of those educational standards that prevent me and all of my Florida colleagues from engaging in "training or instruction that espouses, promotes, advances, inculcates, or compels" students to believe that "[a] person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex"?  Note especially that those words are in a section of the "Stop WOKE Act" that begins with this: "It shall constitute discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, or sex" to do any of those things.  So it is not merely a matter of saying that "teachers can't teach the ugly truth about race in America" but that doing so is itself "discrimination on the basis of race."  To call that perverse would be a gross understatement.

So let us engage in a thought experiment.  At the start of this school year, if a teacher in Jacksonville wants to talk about this past weekend's murders, is it legal to do so?  After all, those murders are "actions, in which the [students] played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race."  Is the safety-valve clause useful, where we supposedly are permitted to talk about race and other topics in the classroom so long as "such training or instruction is given in an objective manner without endorsement of the concepts"?

The law does not define what counts as objective or what is an endorsement.  If a teacher says, "Class, today we're going to discuss the events this past weekend here in Jacksonville, where a White neo-Nazi engaged in the premeditated murder of three Black people," has anything subjective been endorsed?  After all, maybe a White child in that class will "feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress" because of what happened in "the past."  How can a teacher ever know whether simply describing the facts -- and the racial facts are not only important for us to understand what happened in Jacksonville but were the most salient facts in the view of the murderer himself -- will not be deemed to have been an endorsement of some vaguely prohibited view that some White parents will insist has traumatized their kid?

But this goes far beyond Jacksonville and its depressingly numerous cousins.  As we commemorate various anniversaries in US history, how can we not talk about the genuine benchmarks of American progress without explaining why they were benchmarks at all -- that is, by explaining the bad things that had been happening until enough people came together and made the world somewhat better?  About a month ago, for example, a Black Washington Post columnist wrote about the 75th anniversary of President Harry Truman's executive order integrating the armed services in 1948.

At one point, after describing how the moral progress that Truman's order represented had been followed by other important civil rights advances, she recalled a simple but devastatingly moving personal memory:

My own father died more than 30 years ago and barely talked about his military service, though he kept his medals in his top dresser drawer, which was lined with burgundy felt. They were stacked up neatly along with the rows of the 'I voted' stickers he got when he cast a ballot.

My eyes welled up with tears after I read those words, and I wrote a note to myself: "How can we not teach this?"  How is it not a good thing to teach our children that there were bad times and great injustices, and some of those injustices are yet to be addressed, but there is clear and identifiable progress on many fronts that we should celebrate -- and defend?

If some White kids (again, I am thinking it is more about their parents than the kids themselves, but never mind) need to be reassured that they do not "bear[] personal responsibility" for those prior bad things "by virtue of his or her race ...," then why not point out how many White people were on the right side of history?  "Hey kids, you'll be happy to know that this was never an all-out race war, and progress could not have happened without allies, many of whom looked just like you!"  I am no fan of the "white savior" narratives so common in Hollywood ("The Green Book," "Dangerous Minds," "Mississippi Burning," "The Help," and so on), but it is certainly possible to teach children that "the winning side included Whites, too."  Speaking honestly about our history does not require us to lapse into the false all-Blacks-versus-all-Whites alternative reality that modern racists imagine.

More to the point, we had been doing this the right way for decades -- not universally, and not particularly well, but at least we were trying to teach honestly about advances and setbacks in the fights against bigotry in all its forms.  Again, we had a long way to go.  In my Ohio public school, for example, I never learned about the Tulsa massacre or other mass murders perpetrated by White mobs, and I doubt that my old school district teaches about that abhorrent incident all these years later.  But I should have learned about those things, and if I had, I can say with full confidence that I would never have thought, "Hey, why is the teacher endorsing the idea that I should feel anguish because some atrocities were carried out by White people?"

Where things stood until just a couple of years ago, then, is hardly an acceptable place to stop.  But lurching backward, all in the name of alleviating some dreamed-up snowflakey racial guilt, is obviously a tragedy of enormous proportions.  And although there are many bad aspects of this reactionary atmosphere, one of them is certainly that we cannot even be confident that our political leaders are capable of providing the simple but essential service of helping people grieve.