September 25, 2021

Michigan Senate Bill 460

Guest Opinion
By Tom Gutowski | Aug. 14, 2021

The nationwide debate over what should be taught — or more to the point, not taught — in public schools about race and racism has generated lots of heat but not much light. As of this writing, 26 state legislatures have introduced bills seeking to limit what can be taught. Eleven states have enacted bans either legislatively or through other means.

Several of the bans explicitly forbid the use of materials from The 1619 Project or the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) or both. 

The 1619 Project is a Pulitzer Prize-winning effort by The New York Times to re-examine the history of race in America from the arrival of enslaved Africans in the colonies in 1619 to the present.

CRT is the study of the ways in which racism has shaped American law from the colonial period to the present and of how the legal system perpetuates racial inequities despite Civil Rights laws, constitutional amendments, shifts in cultural attitudes, and Supreme Court decisions that seemingly should have put an end to them. CRT is a mostly graduate-level pursuit and is not actually taught in K-12 public schools. 

In Michigan, Senate Bill 460 would ban both The 1619 Project and what it calls CRT from Michigan classrooms. It defines CRT as “anti-American and racist theories, reading guides, lesson plans, activities, guided discussions, and other resources that promote that the United States is a fundamentally racist nation, that the United States Constitution is a fundamentally racist document, and that certain races are fundamentally oppressive or oppressed.” 

This definition of CRT is the result of a conscious effort to hijack the term “CRT” for use as a political slur. As one conservative activist tweeted, “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Apparently, calling everything “socialism” wasn’t working well enough. 

If Senate Bill 460 becomes law, the chilling effect on teachers will be profound. At what point does an honest lesson about slavery, the economics of cotton production, Jim Crow, Black Codes, lynchings (of Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese), race massacres, red-lining and restrictive covenants, the KKK, the Tuskegee experiment, historical disfranchisement of Black voters, the fight against desegregation in education (opponents called it communism), discriminatory administration of the GI Bill, the Trail of Tears, or the forcible removal of many Native American children from their parents begin to sound “anti-American,” or like an assertion that the U.S. is a “fundamentally racist nation,” to an upset parent or bureaucrat? It would be risky to say much of anything about race in a classroom. 

And that’s apparently the point. A close look into race and racism in the United States calls into question the comfortable and celebratory stories we tell ourselves about our founding and history, and it may also have implications for the present.

It’s one thing to feel good about the emancipation of the slaves and the Civil Rights movement and to marvel at the intelligence of George Washington Carver, the eloquence of Martin Luther King Jr., and the courage of the freedom riders. But it’s quite another to begin to understand the myriad ways in which racism has shaped American society and to realize that many of the negative effects persist to this day.

On average, people of color have lower incomes, accumulate and pass on to their children less wealth, and have higher rates of unemployment and poverty and lower rates of home ownership than do whites. They have worse health outcomes, greater exposure to environmental pollution, and lower life expectancies. They are stopped and searched more often by police, and in general, fare worse in the criminal justice system. Many well-meaning white people don’t see these sorts of disparities for the simple reason that they don’t experience life through the eyes of a person of color.  And some, unfortunately, choose not to see.

One of the purposes of teaching history is to prevent or remedy such blind spots, to broaden students’ perspectives so they can better understand, function in, and contribute to a diverse society. That means teaching the stories of all people in the United States, including people of color. And it means telling their whole story; not just accounts of oppression and the accomplishments of a handful of the very gifted. For example, maybe kids should be taught more about the Black Wall Street area of Tulsa than the sole fact that it was destroyed in a 1921 race massacre.

Teaching the accurate and honest history of America — its triumphs, its failings, and its diversity — is not about division or shame, or about replacing one official orthodoxy with another. Quite the opposite. It’s about inclusion, about truth-telling, and about encouraging students to engage in honest if sometimes uncomfortable discussion and reflection. Students shouldn’t be told what to think, but neither should they be denied access to the truth.

Neither Michigan Senate Bill 460 nor other state bills like it should become law. There’s nothing patriotic about muzzling teachers by insisting on a dumbed-down and anodyne version of our history. The kids can handle the truth. The question seems to be whether the adults can as well.

Tom Gutowski earned a PhD in History from the University of Chicago before entering the insurance industry, from which he retired a few years ago.

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