Updated: Mar 15
So, in backing a law that withholds money from Tennessee’s public and charter schools if they deign to teach critical race theory, Republican lawmakers clung to an anecdote about a 7-year-old child who came home and asked her mother if she was a racist.
“You know something’s going on that we need to address if a second-grader has to ask that question,” said Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, who serves on the House’s K-12 subcommittee, in defending the legislation.
White also said lawmakers were getting calls from all over the state from parents "in schools where they feel very uncomfortable with children coming home being exposed to certain things,"
Other GOP lawmakers also cited the anecdote that came from that anonymous letter.
Yet here's the thing.
If that little girl actually asked that question, what must be addressed is…her question. That’s what education and, quite frankly, life is supposed to be about.
But because Republicans in the state’s General Assembly value white people’s hurt feelings more than Black people’s lived truths, they addressed it by passing a whole law that essentially bans hard lessons that lead to hard questions about race.
And, in doing so, they became a textbook example of the white privilege that they want to pretend doesn’t exist.
“When these conversations about race come up, that fragility kicks in, and that defensiveness kicks in, and that anger kicks in,” said Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, who chairs the Assembly’s Black Caucus and who, on CNN, blasted the law as an attempt to whitewash history.
“That fragility is what’s being protected here. If you can suppress these conversations in education, if you’re able to hide who’s benefiting from those structural and institutional biases that have been created, that fragility doesn’t have to be exposed.”
The law, which became a last-minute priority for Republicans, isn’t a law as much as it is a hodgepodge of scribblings that could have a chilling effect on CRT, a theory that posits that racism is entrenched in U.S. institutions.
It could also stifle efforts to teach Black history, or any discussions about racism at all.
Which, considering that lawmakers killed legislation that Sen. Katrina Robinson, D-Memphis, pushed to have Black history taught in fifth and eighth grades, seems to be the goal.
Among other things, the law bans schools from teachings that “promotes division or resentment between race, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation or class.”
It bars teachings that say a person should feel “…discomfort or psychological distress because of his or her race or sex,” or teachings that assert that “a meritocracy is racist or sexist or designed to oppress members of another race or sex.”
So, if a student feels “discomfort or distress” from watching footage from the 1960s civil rights marches in Birmingham, Alabama, in which Black people were bitten by German shepherds and savaged by high-pressure hoses, or in learning about the violence that some of Memphis' sanitation strikers endured during the 1968 strike, would a school lose its public funding?
If a history teacher gives a lesson on how the postwar housing boom excluded Black veterans because white-run banks refused them loans and mortgages – a predicament that prevented many Black people from accumulating the generational wealth that gave white people an economic advantage – would that violate the ban on teaching how racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions?
Or if a teacher leads students in a heated debate over that topic, or, for that matter, any topic about race, will that qualify as “promoting division or resentment,” between races?
Parkinson said that law provides that teaching subjects on race are fine if there’s a balance; if the other side is told.
But what would that even look like?
Would that mean that instructors teaching how civil rights marchers who were chewed up by police dogs in Birmingham would have to talk about how that city’s public safety commissioner, Eugene “Bull” Connor, went to church every Sunday?
“Explain to these teachers how they’re supposed to show that the slave master was good, or the good and bad in slavery,” Parkinson said. "You can't."
Sadly, Rep. Justin Lafferty, R-Knoxville, tried.
He recently suggested, on the Assembly floor, that the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, which made slaves count as three-fifths of a person to enhance the South’s political power, was actually aimed at ending slavery, not perpetuating it. Some lawmakers actually applauded.
Would teachers have to perpetuate that kind of ludicrousness for the sake of balance?
“The ultimate goal is that, if you can’t teach both sides of it, you can’t teach it,” Parkinson said. “Which means they won’t be able to teach it.”
(Insert head-shaking gif here).
Oh, and there’s this: Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown and a man who never seems to miss a chance to use his legislative powers to marginalize Black people – whether it’s trying to force the Memphis City Council to hire police officers who don’t live in the area or Shelby County Schools to sell its buildings to Germantown – got in on the act.
He added an amendment that bans teaching that “the rule of law does not exist, but instead is a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”
Obviously, Kelsey was living under a rock when the GOP-dominated U.S. Senate voted to acquit former president Donald Trump of inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection because many believed their political fortunes hinged on his support.
Clearly the power relationship, not the rule of law, prevailed there.
Then again, this kind of intolerance on the part of Tennessee’s GOP lawmakers isn’t new.
These are the same people who tried to pass a law that would grant legal immunity to some drivers who hit protesters, and who passed a law last year to criminalize certain types of protests after Black Lives Matter activists filled Tennessee’s streets to protest George Floyd’s slaying.
In February, after the East Tennessee State University men’s basketball team kneeled during the national anthem to protest police brutality, they threatened to pull funding from state colleges and universities that didn’t ban such actions.
And, just as those GOP lawmakers claim to be banning CRT to protect the feelings of a second-grader, they claimed to be protecting and honoring the flag and veterans by pressuring schools to ban athletes from kneeling.
But what’s sad here is that the lawmakers who are on this tyrannical tear foolishly believe they are doing it in the name of upholding ideas of American strength and exceptionalism.
Their actions reflect weakness; the kind of weakness that bullies exhibit because of their insecurities. If they were strong, and if they truly believed in American resiliency, they wouldn’t believe that it was too weak to withstand the truths of its racial past and present.
They wouldn’t be using their power to shut down expression and discussion. Especially because in doing so, they’re perpetuating their own form of white supremacy.
It’s the kind that says that whatever pain white people may experience from being reminded of the existence of racism should be assuaged at the expense of whitewashing the truths of Black people who actually experienced it.
And who, judging from what the Tennessee GOP just did, still are.