Let’s talk about the things they will not learn.
“They” meaning K-12 students in Tennessee. Not that the Volunteer State is alone in passing laws and standards to restrict the teaching of African American history. To the contrary, a number of states – Oklahoma, Texas, Florida and more – lately have done the same.
But Tennessee snagged my attention with news of the penalty it plans to impose on schools that disobey this edict. The state Department of Education warns that such schools may lose up to $5 million in funding if found to have “knowingly violated” the new law which, among other things, forbids any teaching that suggests “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.”
The sheer wrongheadness of it is stunning. When, in the entire history of teaching history, has any competent person ever taught students they “should” feel bad because of what they are? No, the transparent fear here is not that anyone will tell white kids they should feel bad, but that they will regardless, if taught how people who look like them have historically treated people who don’t.
So the state that once prosecuted a science teacher for teaching science (the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925) now persecutes history teachers for teaching history. And here, its supporters will point out that the new law does allow for what it calls the “impartial” teaching of historical oppression, but that’s a fig leaf with holes in it. How, exactly, might one “impartially” discuss spectacle killings or the auction of human beings?
Besides, no matter how “impartial” one strives to be, the facts are what the facts are and they carry emotional mass, so there is always a chance, even a likelihood, a white kid – or Black one, for that matter – will be left feeling, as they say, some kind of way. Working through that could be the beginning of enlightenment, of deeper commitment to liberty and justice for all. Except that some of us are hell-bent on protecting those kids – and let’s be real: It’s the white kids whose feelings engender this concern – from doing that emotional heavy lifting.
Which means there are things they won’t learn.
They won’t learn how redlining and predatory lending squashed Black people into urban ghettos while white ones were ushered into pleasant suburbs from which Blacks were barred.
They won’t learn how white people massacred Black ones by the thousands and even overthrew duly elected governments in the name of white supremacy.
They won’t learn how law enforcement has historically been a tool of racial oppression, from the patrollers of the slavery era to the convict leasing of the postbellum years to Bull Connor in 1963 to Derek Chauvin last year.
And they will not learn the degree to which America has always been a conspiracy to enrich and empower people who are white at the expense of those who are not.
If you are African American, this tender solicitude, this willingness to bury your story for someone else’s comfort, is likely more than a little infuriating. But that is what’s now being demanded, and a $5 million penalty only underscores how serious is that demand and how threatened are the people making it.
Learning what really went on in this country might hurt some white child’s feelings, and for some of us, apparently, that’s a price too high to pay.
Sure, Black people have gone through some things. But let’s not lose sight of what’s really important here.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.