Category Archives: Race

What Aren’t Our Children Taught in School?

Are America’s schools teaching children to hate their country?

In his speech at Mount Rushmore on Independence Day, Donald Trump asserted, “Against every law of society and nature, our children are taught in school to hate their own country, and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but were villains.”

Exactly what are our children being taught in school?  Are they learning about hatred?  Yes.  But until recently they were learning about hatred in other countries—about brutal dictatorships in far-away lands.  Ask anyone who paid the least bit of attention in school, and that person could probably name at least a few of the many atrocities from history’s leaders.

A more appropriate question is this one:  What aren’t our children being taught?  What has been omitted from lessons to ensure that our children grow up with a love of America at the cost of being blind to the brutalities of our history?

I am reminded every day just how woefully ignorant many of us are about what it means to grow up Black in this country.  Recently, I’ve been reading Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime. As I began reading, I remembered that I had written a paper on apartheid in college, so I knew many of the facts about the history of South Africa.  However, as I did research, not once did any of the opinions available to me at the time suggest a similarity to the institutional racism that is also part of America’s heritage.

After college, as a teacher in an oral communications class in the years before apartheid ended, I listened as many of my students gave speeches railing against apartheid.  All of them had a tone that suggested, “Why can’t South Africans do what the Civil Rights Movement did in our country?”  At the time I couldn’t enlighten them because I held much the same view of America.  I was the blind leading the blind in a very white world.

In his introduction to Part III of the book, Trevor Noah says this:

In Germany, no child finishes high school without learning about the Holocaust…As a result, Germans grow up appropriately aware and apologetic. British schools treat colonialism the same way, to an extent. Their children are taught the history of the Empire with a kind of disclaimer hanging over the whole thing. “Well, that was shameful, now wasn’t it?”

In South Africa, the atrocities of apartheid have never been taught that way. We weren’t taught judgment or shame. We were taught history the way it’s taught in America. In America, this history of racism is taught like this: “There was slavery and then there was Jim Crow and then there was Martin Luther King Jr. and now it’s done.”  It was the same for us. “Apartheid was bad. Nelson Mandela was freed. Let’s move on.”  Facts, but not many, and never the emotional or moral dimension.

After nine years of teaching English in southern West Virginia, I moved to Maryland to teach in a school in the D.C. suburbs with an overwhelmingly white population.  A few years later I was awarded a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for an independent study of women novelists who were largely unrepresented in the literary canon.  That summer I read Margaret Atwood and Anne Tyler, but, more importantly, for the first time I encountered Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Toni Morrison.

Reading these women and learning about the context in which they wrote changed forever the way I taught English.  I had never read a novel by a Black female author, and I vowed that I would try to ensure that no student who ever spent a semester in my literature classes would be able to say the same.  I didn’t always teach those works well, but I tried.

The experience also changed the way I taught other works.  I distinctly remember one young Black man whose parents asked that he be given another book to read while the class read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  He told me that he’d like to read the novel so that he could see for himself whether it was racist, so I called his parents.  I told them that I would be happy to provide him an alternate reading, but I laid out the case for reading Twain.  They agreed, and I introduced the novel by having the class read arguments for and against the novel.  Looking back, I now know I could have done more.

The magnitude of what I wasn’t taught—and what, for a long time, I didn’t teach—is staggering.  I don’t remember the first time I heard the name Emmett Till—and for very good reason.  While Jet Magazine published the images of Emmett Till’s face, white publications protected their readers from the most graphic of the images.

A few months after the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in Washington, I was invited to join a group of mostly African-American friends when they had an extra ticket.  When we got inside, some of the elevators were broken, and the lines to get into the exhibits on the lower floors were very long.  Our group decided to walk up the escalators and start on the floors that celebrated the accomplishments of Black people, including a wonderful exhibit of President Barack Obama.

I wasn’t fully prepared for what came next.  We went to the lowest floor, where exhibits displayed artifacts from slave ships.  I will never forget my astonishment as I looked at the countries listed on the walls, with the names of the ships and the number of the enslaved who were lost during the voyage or sold as slaves in the United States.  One ship had only a single survivor by the time it reached America’s shores. And nearly every European country was complicit in the slave trade.

But when I got to the events of the 20th Century, the Emmett Till exhibit flattened me.  As a mother, I cannot fathom Mamie Till’s pain or the courage it took for her to demand that America look into the face of her son.

I cannot fathom, either, how it’s taken another 65 years for righteous anger to erupt in the streets of America—an anger that demands that this time, white people like me do not look away.

And yet many of us are still looking away, even as the cameras roll.  Two years ago, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, NBC released the documentary Hope and Fury: MLK, the Movement and the Media, and at the beginning of June, the network made it available online.  Black journalists say in the documentary that they don’t know a single Black person who hasn’t heard the name Emmett Till or seen that image—that it’s their Kennedy assassination or 9/11 moment—that they can tell others where they were when they first saw the image.

Dr. King and every Black in this country has stared injustice in the face for far too long as whites have retreated to the comfort of looking away.  Fifty-seven years ago next month, Dr. King stood on the mall and, in his “I Have a Dream Speech,” stressed “the fierce urgency of now.”

If you’re white and you’ve been turning away, read the stories, watch the videos and the documentaries—if you have the courage.  If you have an ounce of human compassion, you will come away changed.  And that is exactly the sort of patriotism your country needs from you.  Now.

Do Black Lives Matter?

Of course all lives matter. But whites, and in particular white Christians, must stop using that response as an excuse when others say that Black Lives Matter.

The Apostle Paul, speaking to the early church in Galatia, expresses this concept well when he says, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NRSV).

Paul writes this letter in response to his critics’ attacks about the way he is teaching what it means to be Christian in this fledgling movement.  There is absolutely no question, however, that the free people of his time enjoyed privileges that slaves did not or that men enjoyed privileges that women did not.

And yet how often we Christians forget that the foundation of our faith is that Jesus died fighting for the poor and the disenfranchised to be heard and cared for and that he commanded us to do the same.  We keep repeating history because we fail to grasp the notion that while all lives matter, our charge is to see that those who are ignored and swept aside get the attention that free, white, wealthy males have enjoyed since the beginning of civilization.

Just 52 years ago, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., died preaching the same message.  Five years before his death he was jailed for protesting in Birmingham, and like Paul, he wrote a letter to his critics.

From that jail, like Jesus and Paul before him, Dr. King responds to the clergymen (yes, pastors and, yes, all men!) to address their claim that he had no right to be in Birmingham.  In part, he writes: 

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.  Just as…the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town…It is unfortunate that demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham, but it is even more unfortunate that the city’s white power structure left the Negro community with no alternative.

In a new century, when Blacks are still denied privilege and even justice by a deeply ingrained white power structure, Christians are still commanded by the Christ we follow to seek privilege and justice for the powerless.

Even poor white Christians must follow this command.  Let us not forget the story Christ once told of a poor widow:

He sat down opposite the treasury and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mark 12: 41-44, NRSV).

He watches the rich people give, as they are certainly expected to do, but he doesn’t praise them for their largess.  Instead, Jesus points to the poor woman as an example of how we should all behave.  As a woman and a widow, even in the dominant culture, this widow certainly had little privilege, yet she feels a responsibility to give.

Black lives matter.

Not because they matter more than poor whites who also struggle for survival in the wealthiest country in the world.  They matter because race ensures that they must strive harder to get privilege and justice.

As a white child of poverty who once lived in a house with an outdoor toilet and no hot water, I was still privileged in ways that Blacks in my first hometown were not.  Yes, I worked hard in school to escape poverty.  But now that I am securely ensconced in the upper middle class, I do not have to worry about how I’ll be treated by police if I’m pulled over for speeding or for having an expired registration.  I have several black male friends, also firmly upper middle class, who cannot say the same.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates tells the story of how his friend Prince Jones was killed by police yards from his fiancee’s home by a policeman who didn’t even work in the jurisdiction where Jones was killed.  In the book and the recent film Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer for the Equal Justice Initiative, gives a harrowing account of being stopped by police, who hold a gun to his head solely for the purpose of intimidating him for his work on the case of an innocent man on death row.

These are not unusual stories.  This is why Black Lives Matter.

As long as our skin is white, even if that is the only privilege we have because we are part of the lower class, we still have a responsibility to those who are even less privileged.  Until those who are poor and white understand this, those in power will continue to divide and conquer to maintain the existing power structure, which benefits them little more than their brothers and sisters of another race.

In her book White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg, a historian on the faculty of Louisiana State University, recounts the consistent ways that those in power in America have used race and class to stay in power.  She concludes the book in this way:

It was just as easy to ignore inequality by claiming that certain breeds could never be improved. As W.E.B. Du Bois explained in 1909, southern politicians were lost in the vacuity of illogic. They had fallen to arguing that any form of social intervention was pointless, because man could not repel nature’s force; some races and classes were invariably stuck with their inferior mental and physical endowments…[America’s poor] are drummed into the worst jobs, the worst-paid positions, and provide the labor force that works in coal mines, cleans toilets and barn stalls, picks and plucks in fields as migrant laborers, or slaughters animals. Waste people remain the ‘mudsills’ who fill out the bottom layer of the labor pool on which society’s wealth rests. Poor whites are still taught to hate—but not to hate those who are keeping them in line.

Black Lives Matter.  And that all lives matter cannot be an excuse for inaction.

White Christians, in particular, whether rich or poor, have a responsibility to follow the example of Christ.  We are still commanded not to hate, and we need to remind ourselves daily that the greatest commandment is love.  And like the poor widow, we are still commanded to give what we can and to root out poverty and injustice when we are witness to it.

Like Jesus and Paul and Martin before us, we must live lives worthy of the calling we have accepted.