Righting America

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Using the Law to Protect Fragile White People from Seeing the Past and Present | Righting America

by William Trollinger

Women for Segregation. Image via the Equal Justice Initiative.

One thing is for certain. White Americans need lots of tender loving care.

The latest campaign to prop up white folks has its origins in the furious response to the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine production that won the Pulitzer Prize, and that sought “to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” 

The notion that the long shadow of slavery is a central feature of U.S. history seems as commonsensical as it can get. But apparently this is too much for the tender psyches of white conservatives. For example, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) – who, as one blogger observed, is “on a mission to turn himself into an actual cartoon character” – whined that the 1619 Project completely fails to take into account that, as our glorious Founders understood, “slavery was a ‘necessary evil’” that made it possible for America to become the extraordinary nation that it is today. 

Cotton was soon followed by then-President Trump, who cried that the 1619 Project was – in words he clearly did not write – “toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together.” 

(The fomenter of the January 06 Insurrection cares about “civic bonds that tie us together”?)

In an effort to re-establish patriotic education in U.S. schools, Trump created the 1776 Commission, which pronounced that its goal was to tell America’s “true history.” Oddly (or, not oddly), the Commission included no historians who work in U.S. history. On the other hand, the Commission did include two presidents of very conservative colleges who apparently had no problem with the fact that 26% of the report was plagiarized (without citations). 

(Are Hillsdale and College of the Ozarks ok with their students submitting papers that are ¼ plagiarized?)

Not surprisingly, the report is dreadful. Here are two lowlights from the 1776 Report that directly relate to the white fragility laws I discuss below, along with my responses:

  • The most common charge levelled against the founders. . . is that they were hypocrites who [in their protection of slavery in the Constitution] didn’t believe in their stated principles . . . This charge is untrue, and has done enormous damage, especially in recent years, with a devastating effect on our civic unity and social fabric.” (10) 
    • Let me get this right. What has damaged America is not its 250 year tradition of enslaving human beings, and not the “long shadow of slavery” that resulted in a pervasive individual and institutional racism that continues to this day (e.g., the January 06 insurrection). Instead, what has really damaged America is noticing and commenting on the huge gap between the founders’ ideals and the institution of slavery. Check.
  • The Civil Rights Movement culminated in the 1960s with the passage of three major legislative reforms affecting segregation, voting, and housing rights. It presented itself, and was understood by the American people, as consistent with the principles of the founding.” (15)
    • The second sentence is, not to put too fine a point on it, ridiculous. Whole swaths of the American public (including my family and my church) hated the movement and hated Martin Luther King, Jr. And there were not just angry words, as the segregationist resistance to the movement involved vicious and violent attacks. Finally, and as Kevin Kruse has pointed out, these furious opponents to civil rights claimed “that it was their resistance that reflected the ‘principles of the founding.’ When Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957, for instance, he pointedly recited the entire Declaration of Independence to link his act of defiance to the colonists’ acts.

Upon taking office President Biden disbanded the 1776 Commission. But the conservative obsession with ensuring that fragile white people feel good about themselves has now taken a legal turn.

In the past few months 28 states have passed or are debating laws that “restrict education on racism, bias, [and] the contributions of specific racial or ethnic groups to U.S. history.” And given that these laws come from the white Right echo chamber – where Tucker Carlson is a godlike personage – it is not surprising that many of them are nearly identical.

For example, in May Oklahoma passed a law prohibiting teachers “from using lessons that make an individual ‘feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” The next month Tennessee banned any discussion of race that might cause a student ‘discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress.’” And according to guidelines proposed by the Tennessee Department of Education, teachers who violate this law “may have their teaching licenses suspended or revoked,” and districts that “knowingly” violate this law may lose up to $5 million in state funding.

Make a white person feel uncomfortable, and you are going to pay.

Of course, none of these laws specifically reference “white” individuals or “white” students. They can’t. 

But here is a thought experiment. Imagine an African American student who complains to a local school board or state department of education that she feels “discomfort,” “anguish,” and other forms of “psychological distress” because her teachers and her textbooks: 

  • elide the horrors of slavery (i.e., the “necessary evil” that really was not so bad)
  • assert that the Civil War was not about slavery but, instead, “state’s rights”
  • claim that Reconstruction was awful (all those uneducated ex-slaves running amuck) and Redemption was necessary and good 
  • declare that white Americans happily supported the civil rights movement (see: the 1776 Commission report) until the moment in 1963 or 1964 when African American leaders became “divisive”
  • pronounced that racism has been banished from the land, and that there is certainly no “systemic racism” (and to claim this is to reveal that you are an anti-American Marxist) 

How would a school board or state department of education respond? Would they revoke the teacher’s license? Would the school district be forced to surrender millions of dollars in state funding? 

Of course not.

(That said, I would love to see these laws challenged on these grounds, if only to have the chance to marvel at the convoluted responses from school boards and state departments of education).

In a brilliant New York Times Magazine essay, historian Timothy Snyder has it exactly right:

Our memory laws amount to therapy, a talking cure. In the laws’ portrayal of the world, the words of white people have the magic power to dissolve the historical consequences of slavery, lynchings, and voter suppression. Racism is over when white people say so. We start by saying we are not racists. Yes, that felt nice. And now we should make sure that no one says anything that might upset us. The fight against racism becomes the search for a language that makes white people feel good. The laws themselves model the desired rhetoric. We are just trying to be fair. We behave neutrally. We are innocent.

At their very core these white fragility laws are anti-democratic, authoritarian at their core, very much in keeping with – as Snyder pointed out – laws established in Putin’s Russia. That said, the game is not over. As Nashville’s Margaret Renkl pointed out in a New York Times article earlier this week:

People here are already standing in defense of history against the attempts of our Republican leaders to prevent the teaching of truth, and I have faith that more and more Southerners will work to overturn these laws that bar the teaching of truth, just as they worked last summer to bring down those Confederate statues.

The anti-truth forces have not yet triumphed. 

But the threat is real.