UPDATE: The Bill did not pass, so I'm shifting this to behind the break.
Today, I sent my state representative a brief email asking him to oppose House Bill 1218, subtitled "TO PROHIBIT OFFERING OF CERTAIN COURSES, EVENTS, AND ACTIVITIES REGARDING RACE, GENDER, POLITICAL AFFILIATION, SOCIAL CLASS, OR CERTAIN CLASSES OF PEOPLE; AND TO ADJUST FUNDING FOR SCHOOLS THAT OFFER CERTAIN COURSES, EVENTS, AND ACTIVITIES."
Essentially, this bill sponsored by Representative Lowrey and Senators Stubblefield and Johnson seeks to do at the state level what now defunct programs like The 1776 Commission would have done at the state level. And, obviously, Biden's rescinding of the commission doesn't ensure academic freedom or end the debate over history. HB1218 and similar measures are a continuation of the black-lash that has been going on for years; HB1218 is an attempt to return to life pre-BLM and to return to some unrealistic, nostalgic view of history as clean, peaceful, and free of strife.
HB1218 is white-washing.
Since 2017, I've lived in Camden, Arkansas. And, even though our community is nearly 56% black, we elected our first black mayor in 2018. From the start--even before his election--he's faced incredible challenges by white men in the area, including some who serve on the city council. For instance, during one taped meeting in 2020, Alderman Lindsey attempted to enter an editorial from the locally produced The Parham Report as part of the minutes of the May 2020 meeting as a "transcript of the Mayor's race report." While Lindsey was careful to call the report (not the man) "racist," it was clear he felt Mayor Lott pointing out the intimidation and harassment he has been subjected to was somehow improper and untrue accounting of history.
Prominent men in the community telling Mayor Lott that he need not run, that he couldn't "afford it," and that they had already "decided" who the next mayor would be clearly shows how many in my current community lack understanding of systemic racism. That an Alderman would waste time during multiple city council meetings to scold the Mayor for his "race report" and show no shame or embarrassment is astounding to me. His attempts to enter an editorial about the Mayor's report as a "transcript" is a direct example of how revisionist history works. His repeated statements that the editorial should be entered as "part of the record" are ridiculous--the meeting was recorded and can be viewed on YouTube. If anything were to be added as an accurate reflection of the report, it should have been the Mayor's typed report, or barring that, a transcript pulled from the recorded meeting, not an editorial that claimed the report was a "race report."
But, that wouldn't have been as showy, I suspect, as trying to literally replace a first-person report written by a black man with an editorial penned by a white man that "corrected" the story.
Just as Alderman Lindsey sought to change the record and portray the Mayor as the villain who "offended" white people by pointing out his own mistreatment, HB1218 seeks to stop teaching people the history of oppression, lest those not oppressed feel shame for inequity and injustice. In a recent news story, one of the sponsors of the bill, Lowrey, indicated, “The intention is - so that students, especially K-12 that are captive, are not subjected to humiliation in terms of trying to make a statement about whether there is inequality or inequity and that's been happening in some of these programs using critical race theory." Black students, Latinx students, gay students, female students, poor students already face humiliation daily by being treated as "less than" by their peers and being told their experiences are not valid or accurate. Acknowledging inequality isn't "humiliating" for those with privilege (in any form). Instead, it is an opportunity to learn and do better. The only reason a white student should feel humiliation in regards to systemic racism is if they do nothing to stand against it, or if they choose to ignore its existence and influence.
I am a product of a small-town Arkansas school. My graduating class of 1988 at Yellville Summit had roughly 60 seniors. Every one of those students was white. Many had never traveled beyond the borders of our state as teens, and I see from what some of them post on social media that even now many of them have not grown past naive viewpoints about race and privilege. Many still live there and carefully curate their experiences so as to remain ignorant of the history of oppression and the fact that we are not yet post-racial. They fail to see the irony of saying they understand racial oppression when they live within a white bubble.
This isn't just a small town or rural issue in our state; there's been plenty of white flight in Conway and Little Rock, for instance. One need only learn about the thriving black business and entertainment district along West 9th Street to realize the ways in which so much of state history has been forgotten when people of color were successful.
For my undergraduate degree and Master's degree, I attended UCA in Conway. While an undergraduate, I was a member of the Honors College. The Honors College was instrumental in introducing me to many ideas and lessons others didn't have access to (that's privilege). I majored in English, and through my classes on African American literature with Dr. Patricia McGraw, I began to understand what white privilege is and how microaggressions work. Dr. McGraw's classes were some of my most important and memorable experiences.
I went on to earn a PhD and to teach college writing and literature in Mississippi and Alabama, and later online. While USM-Hattiesburg had a diverse student population, they hired few faculty of color (one notable exception was Dr. Juliana Abbenyi). We even at one point interviewed professors of African American Literature; the lack of candidates of color was disturbing to me, and I realized that during my years as a graduate student in English I had known one other graduate student in my area of study who was not white. I also took history courses at the graduate level--again, all white faculty and predominantly white students.
I bring up Dr. McGraw and Dr. Abbenyi in part because it shouldn't be odd to have faculty of color in literature and history courses; immigrants and people of color are a huge part of America's history and of Arkansas' history. Students should not have to go go graduate school to learn of those contributions. Nor should they have to seek out on their own the truth of the oppression, aggression, and the mistreatment of people based on their race, socio-economic status, gender orientation, or sexuality.
The scars and ugliness are part of our history, too.
Lowrey's statement about humiliation reminds me of an incident with a student in one of my American Literature courses at USM. I typically gave a quiz at the start of each class as a way to ensure students read the material. On this particular day, students read Flannery O'Connor's short story "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and a poem by Richard Wright titled "Between the World and Me." The student, a young white woman, stopped me in the hallway and asked if she could be excused from the quiz, as she couldn't finish the reading."It upset me too much." I assumed from her emotional state that she was upset about Wright's poem, which graphically describes the scene of a lynching.
"No, I read that. I couldn't finish the O'Connor story. I just knew the grandmother was going to be killed, and she made me think of my gran. I just couldn't read it."
I was astounded; In O'Connor's story a white family (none of them very likeable characters) drives through an area where plantations used to be. The grandmother makes very clearly racist and dehumanizing comments throughout the story. In the end, the whole family is murdered by a couple of white criminals. I can understand where that might be triggering, sure. The story does have violence. But the student didn't find anything wrong with this scene:
“In my time,” said the grandmother, folding her thin veined fingers, “children were more respectful of their native states and their parents and everything else. People did right then. Oh look at the cute little pickaninny!” she said and pointed to a Negro child standing in the door of a shack. “Wouldn’t that make a picture now?”
If HB1218 is passed, these types of experiences will continue. The student identified with the grandmother's nostalgia for the old south. Like the grandmother, she only saw the child as an object for consumption, not as a human in poverty. She was not even a "child" to the grandmother.
The student's response to Wright's poem also astounded me. She reasoned that if someone was lynched there must have been some reason, "he must have done something wrong." The carnivalesque nature of public lynchings didn't seem odd to her. And no discussion of the phenomena and how it was made into a gruesome sport moved her.
The Alderman's objection to Mayor Lott's personal report of the intimidation and harassment he's dealt with came in June. The report was in May, the same month that George Floyd was murdered.
And like my former student, so many cried out that Floyd was a criminal, that his past justified what happened to him. If we do not teach the negative parts of history, we wind up glorifying institutions and achievements built on the backs of others. There's been much gnashing of teeth, for instance, about removal of confederate statues. People cry that we are "erasing history." That might be true if the statues were accurate, historically. Yet they were built for specific propaganda purposes, many well after Robert E. Lee and others were dead by groups hoping to portray traitors as men of honor and to instill fear in people of color in the Jim Crow era.
When I taught at Auburn, having had a diverse student population in Hattiesburg, I mentioned one day to my students that I found the racial demographics surprising. Two students in the class were not white; I watched them slide down in their seats, almost as if to hide or disappear while white male students tried to tell me that "oh, the black students prefer to go to UGA or Tuskeegee." They had no awareness of the differences in the starting blocks for students of color and themselves. HB1218 seeks to stop exercises that teach students how racial, gender, and socio-economic factors create issues for others. Lowrey mentions his opposition to these kinds of lessons in a recent story by KATV: "One of the specific examples is what is called the privilege walk - where all the students start in one line and a number of questions are asked,” said Lowery. “Do you have two parents, do you parents own their home, take steps forward and what it does then - it gives this definition of showing which students are supposedly privileged and which ones are not."
The use of the wording "supposedly privileged" shows Lowrey's true intent--to ignore the very real outside obstacles faced by students who don't have the privileges others have. And, as someone who lives in Maumelle, which is 75% white, why is he so worried about school kids learning they have advantages others don't? I say teach about the local community history with racism, including the woman who sent her neighbor a racist letter,and how the school district thinks only black students need to be told of the dangers of gangs, drugs, and violence.
NOTE: I watched the videos of the May 2020 and June 2020 meetings on Facebook the day after they were recorded. I cannot seem to locate those meeting videos. Perhaps they have been taken down. If they have, I suspect it's more about removing a recorded version of Alderman Lindsey's actions rather than out of any efforts to silence Mayor Lott. God forbid there be a record of the ways white people are still oppressing and harassing people of color, right?