Column: Schools should teach about slavery and racism, even if it’s painful
Last month, school officials in St. Petersburg, Fla., urged teachers not to show students a Disney film about Ruby Bridges, the 6-year-old black girl who integrated an all-white New Orleans elementary school in the 1960s.
A white parent had complained that the film wasn’t suitable for second graders because the scenes of people threatening Ruby and shouting their names could teach students that whites hate blacks.
Oh my god, you might be wondering, could some white people hate black people?
Have whites ever fought to keep black children out of their schools, their neighborhoods, their stores, their buses, their drinking fountains?
It’s just really hard to imagine the legacy of racial hatred, I think, when you’re a white Florida parent who’s terrified of “critical race theory” and “awakened ideology.”
After all, you live in a state where the Republican governor has committed himself to a strategy of exploiting white fear for political gain while striding toward a presidential bid. (Gov. Ron DeSantis’ motto: “In Florida, the ‘awakened’ die.”)
In this charged political environment, it only makes sense that a white parent could mistakenly believe that a film about racism is meant to make your white child feel bad. And we can’t have that.
For black people, however, the truth is that some very bad Things get burned into American politics, the judiciary, education, housing, labor markets. However, racism does not only affect wealth. It also plays a major role in health.
Life expectancy for black Americans is shorter than for white Americans for reasons unrelated to genetics. For example, a 2020 study found that “discrimination is a chronic stressor that can increase the risk of high blood pressure.”
In this country, the high rate of black maternal mortality is a national disgrace.
Fortunately, a growing number of Americans seem to understand the relationship between poor outcomes for Black Americans and the legacy of slavery, oppression, and systemic racism.
They also understand that over the decades — centuries, actually — racist policies have enabled some people (e.g., white Americans) to thrive while making progress for others (e.g., black Americans, Native Americans, and other people of color ) Disabled person.
Those willing to face the past with an open mind understand that there is a systemic reason, unrelated to a person’s behavior, why the median wealth of white households is nearly ten times greater than the wealth of black households.
Most Americans reject the idea of cash reparations as atonement for the ills of slavery and the many ways in which its harmful effects shape the present. But the concept of reparations is hardly revolutionary or new. And reparations can take many non-monetary forms, beginning with the unfulfilled post-Civil War promise of “40 acres and a mule.”
In 1988, for example, President Reagan apologized for the incarceration of Japanese-Americans during World War II and authorized a $20,000 payment to each living ex-inmate.
And there are reparations big and small all over the country today.
In 2021, Evanston, Illinois created a slavery redress plan for its black residents. In 2022, Harvard University committed $100 million to study how the university benefited from slavery and to develop an “account and repair” process.
Last month, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors heard a report from its reparations task force that included payments of $5 million to every eligible black adult, elimination of personal debt and guaranteed annual incomes of at least $97,000 for 250 years were recommended.
Last week, the California task force appointed to investigate reparations for the descendants of enslaved people met for two days of public hearings. Economists advising the task force have estimated that black Californians may be owed more than $800 billion for decades of housing discrimination, excessive policing and disproportionate incarceration.
Perhaps these staggering dollar figures will never be paid in full, but what reparations discussions do, and do so well, is raise our awareness of the true costs of slavery and institutional racism.
It’s a discussion that’s been going on for years. In 2014, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ landmark Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations,” sparked a national debate with its granular statistics on how black Americans were excluded from the storied American Dream.
(Looking up the article on Friday, I was stunned to see an attached editor’s note: “On February 1, 2023, the College Board announced its final syllabus for an AP course in African American Studies. It removed papers — the present in the pilot program—by authors such as Bell Hooks, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, the author of this article.” Florida Strikes Again.)
This week I read How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, a 2021 book by poet and Atlantic staff writer Clint Smith.
Smith, a native of New Orleans, visits nine locations with strong ties to slavery and explores the ways the institution is remembered, distorted, or perpetuated to this day.
Visiting Thomas Jefferson’s plantation in Monticello, Virginia, he explores the contradictions of the man who wrote, “All men are created equal,” and who also enslaved his own children.
In Angola, the Louisiana prison built on the site of a plantation, he is transported back in time as he watches black inmates picking cotton under the watchful eye of mounted guards.
He spends Memorial Day in Petersburg, Virginia with Sons of Confederate Veterans, one of whom shows him the grave of a black man, Richard Poplar, who the Confederate son claims served as an officer in the Confederate Army. Smith’s research indicates that the man was most likely a chef.
It’s the kind of book that should be taught in all American schools but is caught in the crosshairs of one of the most ignorant battles of our time: the struggle to suppress the truth about slavery and racism.
Unlike the film Ruby Bridges, Smith’s book was not outright banned. But it was suppressed.
Last week, Smith told NPR’s Terry Gross that a private school that had selected “How the Word Is Passed” as the reading text for all students canceled an order for 2,000 copies and stopped Smith from speaking to her students.
Speaking to his agency, Smith said that “they didn’t want any kind of controversial books on critical race theory introduced into the lives of the students and indoctrinated with certain views.”
Of course not. We don’t want to give children an uncomfortably true impression of our country’s terrible past.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2023-04-02/schools-should-teach-about-slavery-and-racism-even-if-kids-feel-bad-about-it Column: Schools should teach about slavery and racism, even if it’s painful