Thursday, May 11, 2023

Why GOP lawmakers fear ‘divisive concepts’

  As a kid, I consumed histories and biographies like my peers read comic books. It didn’t matter what era it was. If a story was well-told, I devoured it.

  One of many convictions I’ve developed from that reading: You can’t understand the South of today without understanding the history of this place.

  Why do one-party governments thrive here? Eric Foner’s “Reconstruction” covers that well.

  Why have poor white southerners traditionally rejected coalitions with Blacks and backed wealthy whites determined to keep them poor? Stephanie McCurry’s “Masters of Small Worlds” has a lot of insight into that (and the role religion plays in it). 

  How did southern public education become so unequal? James D. Anderson’s “The Education of Blacks in the South: 1860-1935” nails that issue.

  I could rattle off a dozen more. The point is that history, properly done, helps us understand the world we live in, and how people so distant from us created it. 

  If you look clearly at those people, familiar and alien all at once, you’ll see a lot of ugliness.

  Demigods holding men and women against their will and plotting to kidnap those who escaped. Political systems dedicated to human liberty killing people to take their land. Courts pledged to equal justice bending the law until it fit the molds the wealthiest Americans put in front of them. 

  I got a lot of this growing up. Not just from reading, but from my Catholic school teachers, too. And textbooks that described slavery, segregation, and specious court opinions in depth. 

  None of this made me hate America. It made me love Americans. In each of those stories are dozens of people calling out injustice and doing the bone-wearying work of pushing us toward something better. 

  That’s the history I want my children to learn. But some of our lawmakers disagree. For them, these tales of hope and courage are not insightful or inspirational. 

  They’re “divisive concepts.”

  There’s a long list of them in two separate bills, sponsored by Rep. Ed Oliver (R-Dadeville) and Sen. Will Barfoot (R-Pike Road). 

  Some are obvious. Don’t teach kids that any group is “inherently superior or inferior.” Don’t teach kids that people should be treated differently based on race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity, or national origin. 

  Hardly controversial. A teacher saying things like that would likely lose their job anyway.

  But the bill doesn’t stop there. It prohibits teaching that individuals “are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity or national origin,” or that “fault, blame, or bias should be assigned to a race, color, religion, sex, ethnicity or national origin” solely based on those characteristics. 

  The bills say that a teacher can’t “compel or direct” a student to “affirm, adopt, or adhere” to a divisive concept. Nor can a teacher require students to share their points of view on a divisive concept. 

  So goodbye essay writing! And hello to a bunch of facetious complaints from kids claiming that a homework assignment was really an attempt to make them think about a divisive concept. 

  There are further problems. Does a white kid who feels compelled to do something about our transparently racist Constitution feel inherently responsible for it? Is it wrong for a male student to conclude that men who excluded women from Alabama juries until 1966 had a bias?

  How, exactly, will you measure that?

  You can’t. And that’s the point. 

One narrative only

  The legislation wants to force our educators to teach one and only one historical narrative. In that version, America descended from the sky in gold and jasper, with no tears, mourning, crying, or pain. Any unpleasantness came from bad actors who never distracted the nation from its godly mission. 

  Under these bills, a teacher who tells her students that enslaved and exploited workers built the beautiful city could get disciplined or fired.

  To be sure, the bill doesn’t mandate discipline, and it says historical events can be taught in their proper context. But if you’re an instructor in a district with a Republican Board of Education that’s been drinking a fire hose of “woke mind virus” from conservative media outlets, you’d have reason to be cautious. 

  Where will this lead us? Supporters insist they’re not trying to stop the teaching of Black history, but it’s awfully hard to teach that without describing the legal and social forces that protected human bondage.

  The Constitution that Republicans treat as scripture treated enslaved people as less than human. Many of the people who wrote that Constitution voted to use the federal court system to keep people in bondage. That’s critical to understanding Black America.

  But maybe the supporters of the bill prefer distorted history. After all, many of them were taught in schools that slavery was really Social Security; that violent coups against Reconstruction governments were heroic, and the white supremacists — rendered in cold marble and elevated where no one can see them up close — were the real victims of Alabama history. 

  Our legislators love those monuments. They made it impossible to legally remove them. And the governor ousted the state’s Pre-K leader because a book dared to acknowledge that racism is still a thing.

  But when you get to the work of historians, the racist foundations of our government and its warping of life in the state become clear. So do the brave Alabamians who refused to accept a government that oppressed or ignored them and challenged those in power. They give us examples of courage, and the hope that we can improve the world handed to us.

  For our leaders, that’s a frightening concept.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006, and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register, and The Anniston Star. His work has won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association, and Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector

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