The Ely School Board was wise to resist calls for prohibiting “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” by author Austin Channing Brown. The book recounts one woman’s experience growing up black in America, and it can be painful, at times, for those of us who are part of this nation’s dominant white culture to read. Too painful, apparently, for some.
The book is meant to challenge, yet challenging our perceptions is part of the process of broadening our horizons, which should always be a key objective of education. Recognizing patterns of behavior, assumptions, and misunderstandings that we all have at times, and how those attitudes affect others is more important than ever in an America that is increasingly diverse. People of color now make up 42 percent of this nation’s population, according to just-released census data. It certainly isn’t too soon for all of us to recognize the discrimination African-Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Asian-Americans have faced and all the ways that racial bias has influenced America’s laws and public policy for generations.
Some have dismissed such concerns, arguing that America has left racism in the past and that there’s no value in the exploration of this aspect of our history. Organized groups on the right have even mounted an effort to whitewash America’s past, refusing even to acknowledge the evil of slavery. Anyone willing to admit the racism at the heart of the 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which our nation’s highest court determined that Africans were, by nature, a slave race, not worthy of the freedoms so eloquently enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, is readily dismissed by far too many as “woke.” As if being awakened, or woke, to the reality of the horrors that African-Americans have suffered for centuries in this country is a kind of moral failure, or simply political correctness.
For people of color in this country, understanding racism and its consequences isn’t a matter of history. It’s their lived experience every day, even when those of us in the dominant culture refuse to see it. The many structural disadvantages that generations of oppression against African-Americans have created aren’t washed away easily, and it is an affront to the very notion of education to suggest that such topics are somehow off-limits for discussion in our nation’s high schools. Is it wrong to inform students that many of our founding fathers, as wise as they were at times, held racist, sexist, and elitist views, by any modern standard, believing that only white property-owning males were worthy of the vote in their new republic? If the founding fathers had their way, the vast majority of North Country residents would be denied the right to vote today. Yet they are held up as paragons of virtue and wisdom, despite their very human flaws and hypocrisies. It took more than a century, and much political struggle, before other groups of citizens were granted the right to vote. For people of color, particularly for African-Americans in the South, that right did not come until the 1960s in the wake of the civil rights movement that helped to expose the evils of the apartheid system that had developed in the South under Jim Crow. Even today, conservative-dominated legislatures are enacting new laws designed to make it harder for people of color to exercise their franchise.
Yet these are realities that far too many Americans believe unworthy of examination in our schools. Sadly, school boards across the country have faced an increasingly organized effort by conservative groups to block the teaching of anything other than the most sanitized version of American history. They have organized under the false claim that schools are teaching something known as critical race theory, which is a discipline taught only in a handful of masters and PhD level colleges and universities, which explores the ways that laws and public policies have fostered racial disparities. No K-12 school in the U.S. teaches critical race theory, but that hasn’t stopped those opposed to the teaching of a more comprehensive version of American history from using it as a straw man to drum up opposition to basic honesty in education.
Fortunately for students, school officials and school boards in our region have consistently resisted the pressure to turn history education into indoctrination. They deserve our thanks and support for doing so.