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We Are Condemned to Repeat Our History

On June 17, 2021, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday. For too many Americans, that was the first time they heard the word, let alone knew what it means. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union General Gordon Granger brought the news of freedom to enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas – two months after the end of the Civil War and over two years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the Southern states. Texas was the last state in the Confederacy to learn that “all slaves are free.” The day was declared a paid state holiday in 1980.

I never learned about Juneteenth in the public schools of New York. When I came to Houston, I had to take Texas history in order to get a teaching license in the state. Juneteenth was not in the curriculum. While I was in graduate school, I taught at state schools, one of which was a historically Black university. We never got the day off.

On June 15th, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that bans the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT) in K-12 public schools. Texas now joins Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, and Oklahoma, and seventeen states have introduced similar legislation.

According to the Texas Tribune,the controversial bill, which goes into effect on Sept. 1st, prescribes how Texas teachers can talk about current events and America’s history of racism in the classroom. Teachers cannot be compelled to discuss current events and if they do, they must ‘give deference to both sides.’ It also bans the teaching of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which begins U.S. history when enslaved people first arrived here, and prohibits students from getting credit or extra credit for participating in civic activities that include political activism or lobbying elected officials on a particular issue.

Opponents say the law limits honest conversations about race and racism in American society and will force teachers to equivocate on controversial or sensitive topics that will result in less educated students … Defending the professionalism and objectivity of its teachers when discussing controversial subjects, the Texas chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, maintained, “the bill is part of a national movement by conservatives trying to sow a narrative of students being indoctrinated by teachers.”

Predictably, Ted Cruz challenged the law’s opponents and the entire CRT enterprise, blowing the familiar dog whistle that "Critical race theory says every white person is a racist. Critical race theory says America's fundamentally racist and irredeemably racist. Critical race theory seeks to turn us against each other and if someone has a different color skin, seeks to make us hate that person. And let me tell you right now, critical race theory is bigoted, it is a lie, and it is every bit as racist as the Klansmen in white sheets."

Predictably, Cruz engaged in dangerous and uninformed hyperbole, fueling the conservative fear that schools are indoctrinating students in a harmful liberal mindset that divides groups into oppressors and oppressed.

Critical race theory is, in fact, an academic concept that emerged over 40 years ago out of a framework for legal analysis created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado. It posits that racism is a social construct, not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. CRT examines the way race and racism intersect with culture, law and politics, and is an analytical tool utilized in disciplines such as sociology, literary theory, and the humanities

It is difficult to imagine that a K-12 teacher will avail herself of academic journals and studies that explore the implications of CRT as she prepares her weekly lessons.

How will students come to understand the significance of “all men are created equal”; the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the Constitution; the Trail of Tears; the Chinese Exclusion Act; Japanese internment camps during WWII; Ruby Bridges and Bull Connor; Islamophobia; anti-Semitism; anti-Asian violence; the insurrection against democracy on January 6th?

Can students view the nightly news and intelligently dissect it the next day?

Can students discuss To Kill a Mockingbird without exploring small-town Alabama in 1935?

Can students read any African-American writer without excavating the N-word?

Can we commemorate Juneteeth without asking why it took so long?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that a well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy. By banning critical race theory in Texas schools, Greg Abbott is actually banning critical thinking – the ability to examine arguments logically, analyze opposing viewpoints dispassionately, and arrive at an educated conclusion. He is creating generations of uninformed, incurious, ineffectual citizens who do not know what they do not know, yet, sadly, believe that they are right.

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