…if it seems like the HP only rears its head when another state legislature or university initiates a crackdown on democracy, in the form of banning instructors from teaching American students that racism was, and is still, a real thing that we are all a part of, some of us benefiting from it even without trying to, others of us suffering from it, then… you’re right!
That is what we’re devoted to this year, ever since we began a series on examining the Biden Administration’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, which you can find here on the official White House site.
We’ve always been about civics here, and the ever-lengthening roll call of states in the list below is an abject object lesson in how sometimes democracy is chipped away at bit by bit, and sometimes it falls in an avalanche. If you’ve ever seen a glacier bridge calving in-person or on YouTube–an unfortunately common sight as climate change rages on mostly unchecked–you’ll see that small bits fall off, then much larger pieces, then enormous shards, and then the whole structure falls.
We’ve been seeing small bits and larger pieces falling in our democracy for years, as dedicated efforts to shore up and protect white power began in this country in the 1970s, when the impact of legislation from the most recent Civil Rights Era (1950s and 60s) began to be felt. It only took a few small instances of non-white Americans benefiting from equal rights to send those white Americans who are racist into a rage, and the effort to undo all of that Civil Rights legislation began under Nixon, and his touting of the “silent majority” of Americans who were not on board with revolution, rioting, drugs, and all the other fearsome things he associated with Americans living up to our founding principle of liberty and justice for all. There was a break in the action under Ford and Carter, and then neo-conservative forces regrouped under Reagan, and the fight to keep the “real” America–white people–safe from welfare queens and drug dealers and everything else non-white began in earnest.
Now enormous shards are falling. The attempted racist coup on January 6 hit the water hard. But multiple shards are falling in individual states, where it should be so much easier for people to fight back, because it’s their local legislatures hacking away at democracy. This very learned helplessness is itself one of the tools that right-wing conservatives use constantly, telling Americans that their government is corrupt and dangerous at every level, and they should just a) elect a strong-man to go in and “drain the swamp” for them, then b) stay far away from their governmental institutions and let the strong men go to work unchecked and unquestioned.
Perhaps this seems like editorializing rather than history. People often make the mistake of conflating objectivity with neutrality. When we study the atrocities of human history, the failures, the wars, the greed and destructiveness that characterizes all eras, we have to do all we can to gather all the data available to us, so we know what really happened, and we’ve gotten enough information from all sides to understand how the actors in those events defined what they were doing and their reasons for taking action. We then draw conclusions from the evidence about whether those actions helped improve human life, or whether they contributed to making it more miserable, narrow, and hopeless. We are, after all, studying human beings, not electrons or tectonic plates. We’re studying human actions born of human intention. No one takes action without hoping that the action will have a lasting impact on their own life, lives immediately near to them, and, sometimes, on their society or even the world as a whole.
History describes, then assesses those intentions and impacts. The objectivity part is in the work of reading critically and gathering all available data, not just from a few actors, and not just the parts that confirm your theory, or the parts you agree with, or want to hear. The assessment is necessarily subjective, because “impacts” are felt and borne by human beings, objectively (people can’t vote) and subjectively (people feel inferior). Historical actors want to achieve both objective and subjective impact in order to make the change wrought by their actions more impactful, and long-lasting.
So when people attempting to pass, and succeeding in passing, legislation that forbids Americans to learn that racism against black citizens was and still is carried out by white citizens make very clear, plain, unashamed statements about their desire to protect white people from ever feeling implicated in racism at all costs, including the cost of censorship, silencing of black people, and continued racism, we gather that data. It’s in all of these sources:
- On March 18 we wrote about the Iowa state legislature working to incorporate the anti-justice language and intent of the Trump Executive Order 13950 of September 22, 2020 (Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping), which we spilled so much ink on late last year. The University of Iowa is being pressured by the state legislature to end diversity education for students and staff.
- Then on March 23 we posted about the Idaho state legislature attempting to do the same. Then, just over a month later came the terrible update: they did. On April 29 the Idaho House approved legislation aimed at preventing public and charter schools and universities from teaching critical race theory, which examines the ways in which race and racism influence American politics, culture and the law.
- On May 14, we posted about New Hampshire, whose House Bill HB544–“An Act relative to the propagation of divisive concepts”–is yet another move to make teaching Americans about racism illegal.
And then we analyze those statements and draw our conclusions from facts. And the conclusions are, necessarily, objective descriptions of attempts to subjugate black Americans, which can only provoke a subjective response, whether that’s positive, because you want black Americans to be subjugated, or negative, because you don’t.
We don’t. So we will add to our list this week, and feel the alarm of adding not one but two states to that shameful roll call:
- Oklahoma: Governor Keven Stitt signed legislation to ban critical race theory from being taught in schools. “The bill prohibits public schools and universities from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another,” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.” Proponents say it also bans the teaching of critical race theory, which examines systemic racism and how race influences American politics, legal systems and society. The Oklahoma GOP called on Stitt, a Republican, to sign the bill to “ensure that children are not indoctrinated by dangerous leftist ideologies.” The University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University have announced their student diversity trainings can no longer remain mandatory under the new law, and the first course has been “paused” – a euphemism for “shut down forever.”
- Kansas: On June 2d department chairs at Pittsburg State received an urgent email: “Good evening. I have received an email this evening from Dr. Pomatto inquiring for the Provosts office if Critical Race Theory is being taught in any PSU classes. The specific information would be 1. yes or no and 2. if yes which course(s). The response needs a short timeline as I need to have this information to the Dean’s office by the end of the day. Please reach out to the faculty within your programs and have them, or you, get back to me ASAP by the end of the day tomorrow.” Why this information was needed so urgently is unclear, but given our growing list, it seems that someone at Pittsburg State is anticipating inquiries from the Kansas state legislature.
In each of these cases, there is pushback, but it’s very weak. The Oklahoma City Board of Education has protested the new law, but that will not do much to overturn it. And some faculty at Pittsburg State are angrily commenting on Twitter, which is equally impotent. Unless Americans can shake off the political paralysis they are rewarded for, existing laws will not be overturned, and more will come.
Perhaps you will say these new laws must represent the wishes of the majority, and so must be honored as truly American, and consonant with what America is all about and meant to be all about. In reply, we steer you firmly to the original of our “tyranny of the majority” posts: Court decisions are not democracy? It focuses on the judiciary, not the legislature, so after you read that, go to one of our many “tyranny of the majority” series posts that covers state legislation banning gay marriage being overturned by state judiciaries–try Gay marriage in Alaska v. Tyranny of the majority.
We’ll be back with more; that seems clear.