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Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
Will Minnesotans really elect a governor who doesn’t tell us the truth?
That’s a legitimate question after the leading GOP candidate for governor spoke to a packed house at the Ely Senior Center recently. Not surprisingly, Jensen riffed on what is currently one of the right’s most popular falsehoods— that grade school students are being systematically indoctrinated with a masters or PhD-level legal theory taught, in reality, by only a handful of universities in the country.
“Stupidity is Critical Race Theory,” Jensen told the assembled Elyites during his appearance earlier this month, despite the fact that Jensen clearly hasn’t a clue what he’s talking about. CRT, of course, has simply become right-wing shorthand for any instruction on American history that touches on this country’s ill treatment of its Black citizens. From slavery to Jim Crow, from the Tulsa massacre to the lynching of tens of thousands of Black citizens, to redlining, the White establishment in this country has systematically enacted laws and instituted practices that oppressed Black Americans for centuries. That’s not Critical Race Theory. That’s American History 101. And, sadly, it isn’t entirely history, even in 2022.
None of this was particularly controversial in public schools in the past. Schools have routinely taught about this aspect of America’s history at least since the 1960s. What has changed is the fervency on the right for taking America back to an era when people of color had little political power. Part of that battle is being fought at the ballot box, with the Supreme Court’s weakening of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the Big Lie of a presidential election stolen by Black election judges and voter fraud in some of our major cities.
But the right has long understood the value of the long game when it comes to politics, hence their interest in the classroom and their fear of teaching White students about America’s treatment of people of color. Whether it is teaching of the genocide against Native Americans, the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, or the centuries of Black bondage in a country that claimed to stand for the credo that “all men are created equal,” it appears the party of Trump fears such lessons could generate improper attitudes in White children. Improper attitudes, like empathy.
If there’s a notable consistency with the party of Trump, it is a reliance on cruelty and the notion that empathy is for the weak. Trump has always stood for taking whatever he wanted, without regard of the consequences to others. His supporters have mistaken his sociopathy for strength. Many Russians have made the same miscalculation about Vladimir Putin.
Republicans fear that White students who study a reasonably accurate portrayal of American history might develop an understanding, if not empathy, for the different realities that people of color have long faced in America. They recognize that truly educated students might not accept the right’s farcical claims that Whites are somehow the oppressed race in this country today. Indeed, they might actually support laws and policies intended to provide true equal opportunity for people of color, a notion that’s anathema to the party of Trump.
So, in states across the country where Trump Republicans are in charge, legislatures are passing laws that prohibit the teaching of any lesson that could make White students feel “discomfort.” In Florida, the law even prevents private businesses from engaging in diversity training that might make a worker feel discomfort on account of their race.
There is, of course, a word for that feeling of discomfort that comes during such lessons. While no one today is responsible for the injustices of the past, that twinge that some people feel nonetheless is their conscience at work. Conscience is something that our society used to view as an asset. But not these days, at least not for some. There’s a reason that the party of Trump mocks the Bushes, who coined the term “compassionate conservatives” and talked of a “kinder and gentler” nation. When we act out of empathy or conscience, it is a reflection of our kinder and gentler selves. The party of Trump sees no advantage in laws, policies, or actions undertaken in consideration of others, particularly if those others are people of color.
Before Minnesotans allow themselves to be fooled by Scott Jensen’s false claims about CRT, they should ask themselves what kind of Minnesota they want in the future. If Jensen or another like him is elected governor of Minnesota, our schools will almost certainly face intense pressure to whitewash the teaching of American history. Such a policy, of course, is merely a means to an end. Ultimately, Jensen and his political allies seek to deny people of color a seat at the political table in Minnesota. Denying school children an understanding of the past is just a piece to that puzzle.
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