Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Beyond Toxic Propaganda: Education, Memory, and a Better Future

I originally offered these reflections on February 6, 2021 for a podcast of the Community Christian Church. They are lightly edited. 


Fifteen More Minutes of Fame

Springfield, Missouri made a brief appearance on Fox News Flash on January 21, with what I think was meant to be a shocking headline, but what should be common knowledge by now: “Missouri diversity session tells teachers ‘colorblindness,’ ‘all lives matter’ are forms of white supremacy.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20210122032833/https://www.foxnews.com/politics/missouri-diversity-training-teachers-white-supremacy  ) The article described activities and handouts from a local professional development session for middle school teachers that had been “leaked” to the Discovery Institute, an anti-evolution organization.

To be clear, and as far as I could tell, these educational materials have been openly discussed and distributed for years. The article claimed that “middle school teachers were pressured to endorse certain ideas about race,” but the examples given are not, or, at least, should not be controversial. For example, though the article acts surprised that the training session began with an acknowledgment that we live on land taken from Indigenous Peoples, it’s no secret that the land that now makes up the United States of America was taken from Indigenous Peoples, largely through violence and deceit (https://aeon.co/essays/how-were-1-5-billion-acres-of-land-so-rapidly-stolen ). It’s no secret that children of color are disproportionately treated as adults, unconsciously perpetuating racism and propping up racist systems and cultures (https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/substantial-racial-stereotyping-toward-young-children-of-color-found-among-white-adults-who-work-with-them/ ). It’s no secret that White people endanger the lives of Black people by using the flimsiest of excuses to call the police on them (https://repository.law.umich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1293&context=mjrl ). We have the hard data on all of this. And, after all these years, I can’t imagine a valid excuse for still not understanding how saying “All Lives Matter” distracts us from dealing with the ongoing, tragic, and cumulative impacts of White supremacy on our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities (https://www.oprah.com/inspiration/layla-f-saad-all-lives-matter-is-a-weapon-to-silence ). In all these cases, the article bristles at the idea that racist ideas and actions could somehow be connected to upholding racist systems and cultures.

Again, none of this is new. One version of the handout I suspect Fox News was shocked to discover goes back at least 15 years! I did a simple image search using key words from the article (“overt covert white supremacy”) and found pages of results, many of them variations of a resource developed by the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence back in 2005 and updated by Ellen Tuzzolo in 2016. (https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10155008422952523&set=a.85127512522.81621.626002522&type=3&theater ) In other words, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color have been more than patient with us White folks’ slowness to learn and change, and there is no excuse for our enduring and harmful ignorance. So, dear fellow White people: if any of the material that Fox News was complaining about is new to you, I encourage you to make an earnest effort toward all the learning and changing you need to do.

And if you would like to take a simple step to support our local educators so that they can continue to receive the kind of training and resources that Fox News was mistakenly terrified about, you can send a message of encouragement to the Springfield School Board and the Office for Equity and Diversity. As you might expect, the board, and also and especially the faculty and staff, have been getting lots of pushback and hostility for promoting racial and social justice (https://www.facebook.com/BrettRhetoric/posts/10100435977750666 ). So let them know you are glad that Springfield schools are trying to get on the right side of history and on the right side of marginalized students and communities. 

Ignorance, Lies, and Misinformation

As important as all of this is, there is another aspect to this story that connects to larger conversations about how we remember the past, deal with the present, and create a better, more just, more compassionate, and more livable future. The Fox News article made two connections to this larger context that we need to make sure we notice. First, one of the participants in the professional development session asked, “Is the district saying that we should be Marxists?” Second, the article connected this training event to the Trump administration’s “executive order opposing critical race theory” and the announcement of a new “legal coalition with the aim of bringing a lawsuit before the Supreme Court.”

The outrage over "cultural Marxism" (https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2003/cultural-marxism-catching ) is one of the more persistent ways that we see White people try to prop up the status quo while avoiding accountability for White supremacy. Please note that you do not have to have studied or understood Marx or Marxism to invoke the reflexive disgust that has become associated with the name in the minds and hearts of many people. Interestingly, the person who blew this particular whistle received a fair bit of space in the Fox News article. And while we don’t know if this person was White or not, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that what he said benefits the racist status quo. At any rate, this person expressed three things: critical race theory is Marxist, and he does not like Marxism; critical race theory “pushes a narrative” and “silences anybody who has any kind of disagreement”; and he really likes Martin Luther King, Jr. He said:

Dr. King did not teach the kind of vitriol that we see out of Marxism. Marxism has a long replete history of countries being bigoted and prejudiced against others and then murdering millions as a result of it.”

Claiming devotion to Dr. King while decrying Marxism is more than a little ironic, since Dr. King was also accused by the FBI of being “a ‘whole-hearted’ communist who followed a ‘Marxist-Leninist line.’” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/11/04/in-the-latest-jfk-files-the-fbis-ugly-analysis-on-martin-luther-king-jr-filled-with-falsehoods/ ) But now that the establishment has had 50 years to forget about how radical Martin Luther King, Jr. really was, and 50 years to try to shape his popular image into a harmless icon of racial harmony, he can be invoked in a non-threatening way. Meanwhile, the new generation of folx insisting on and leading us toward racial justice are now accused of Marxism as a way to scare the general populace away from the hard, but liberating, work of dismantling White supremacy.

Unfortunately, the Fox News hero is not unusual or even original. In the new legislative session, our neighbors to the south are one of the states now considering institutionalizing a rejection of critical race theory and, more broadly, an honest understanding of history. Arkansas Representative Mark Lowery has introduced House Bill 1218 in the hopes of prohibiting schools from any lesson, event, or activity that, to quote the bill, “promotes … social justice” on the basis of issues such as race, gender, and social class. It also prohibits any class, event, or activity that “Advocates the solidarity of … a group of students … based on … (A) Ethnicity; (B) Race; (C) Religion; (D) Gender; and (E) Social class”. (https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Bills/FTPDocument?path=%2FBills%2F2021R%2FPublic%2FHB1218.pdf ) This bill is unlikely to pass, but just proposing it helps normalize what should be ridiculous ideas. As Ali Noland has pointed out: “This modern-day-book-burning law would cut funding for any public schools and universities that did their job of making students think about hard things.” (https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2021/02/01/arkansas-lawmaker-pushes-a-bill-so-bad-it-should-be-banned )

Representative Lowery has also sponsored a second bill that shows yet another way to make sure students do not think about hard things.” Arkansas House Bill 1231 is called “An Act Creating the Saving American History Act of 2021.” Its explicit goal is “to prohibit the use of public school funds to teach the 1619 Project Curriculum.” The bill describes “an activist movement” that aims: “to deny or obfuscate this history by claiming that the United States of America was not founded on the ideals of the Declaration of Independence, but rather on slavery and oppression.” The bill denies the fact that wealth and power in the USA did grow “out of slavery” and simply doesn’t understand that the founders and early citizens of the United States could both have lofty aspirations and ideals while also participating in oppression and injustice. Instead, the bill claims that -

The 1619 Project is a racially divisive and revisionist account of history that threatens the integrity of the Union by denying the true principles on which it was founded; and The State of Arkansas has a strong interest in promoting an accurate account of the history of the United States of America in public schools and forming young people into knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.” (https://www.arkleg.state.ar.us/Bills/FTPDocument?path=%2FBills%2F2021R%2FPublic%2FHB1231.pdf )

It probably goes without saying, but Representative Lowery and I have very different understandings of what constitutes “an accurate account of the history of the” USA and what it means to be “knowledgeable and patriotic citizens.”

1619 and 1776

Nevertheless, these ideas are becoming normalized, and similar bills are also being considered in Iowa and Mississippi (https://www.kcrg.com/2021/02/03/proposed-iowa-bill-would-reduce-funding-in-schools-if-the-1619-project-is-taught/ ). This is disappointing and dangerous, but not surprising, especially after the spectacle that Donald Trump made in the waning months of his administration.

Last September, Trump issued an “Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping” that prohibited “federal employees, contractors, and grant recipients from discussing or considering concepts such as critical race theory and white privilege and discourag[ed] diversity education and training.” In a move you will recognize, Trump claimed that diversity training promotes “Marxist doctrine” and “is itself racist and sexist.” As malicious and misguided as the order was, it still had a ripple of impacts across the nation, as organizations, universities, and nonprofits had to weigh the decision to continue programming and multicultural celebrations with the risk of losing their funding. (http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2020/10/ala-statement-executive-order-combating-race-and-sex-stereotyping )

Then, in December of 2020, Donald Trump took aim at The New York Times’ 1619 Project. What did it do to incur such wrath? In the Project’s own words:

The goal of The 1619 Project, … , is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”

More to the point, the Project asks:

What if, … the country’s true birth date, the moment that its defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619? Though the exact date has been lost to history … , that was when a ship arrived at Point Comfort in the British colony of Virginia, bearing a cargo of 20 to 30 enslaved Africans. Their arrival inaugurated a barbaric system of chattel slavery that would last for the next 250 years. This is sometimes referred to as the country’s original sin, but it is more than that: It is the country’s very origin.” (https://pulitzercenter.org/sites/default/files/full_issue_of_the_1619_project.pdf )

However, Trump and his allies insisted that such truth-telling about US history was “toxic propaganda” and even went so far as to say that "left-wing rioting and mayhem [referring to movements such as Black Lives Matter] are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools." (https://thehill.com/changing-america/enrichment/education/535323-biden-rescinds-trumps-1776-commission-a-report ) He insisted that:

Critical race theory, the 1619 project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda, ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together … . It will destroy our country. That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible. … The only path to national unity is through our shared identity as Americans, … That is why it is so urgent that we finally restore patriotic education to our schools.” (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/09/17/devos-black-history-1776-unites-417186 )

And that goal, of restoring “patriotic education to our schools,” resulted in Trump’s establishment of the 1776 Commission last December. The commission then issued a report on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day this year that disrespected both the man and his memory. Like the unnamed man in our Fox News article, the commission sought to pay lip service to Dr. King while hollowing out his message, claiming that:

“‘the Civil Rights Movement was almost immediately turned to programs that ran counter to the lofty ideals of the founders,’ criticizing affirmative action policies and arguing that identity politics are ‘the opposite of King's hope that his children would “live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”’” (https://thehill.com/changing-america/enrichment/education/535323-biden-rescinds-trumps-1776-commission-a-report )

This report, issued almost two weeks after the capitol riots, asserted:

Today, … , Americans are deeply divided about the meaning of their country, its history, and how it should be governed. This division is severe enough to call to mind the disagreements between the colonists and King George, and those between the Confederate and Union forces in the Civil War. They amount to a dispute over not only the history of our country but also its present purpose and future direction.” (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/12/18/trump-1776-commission-appointments-448229 )

If you hadn’t noticed before, please pay attention now. The 1776 Commission report was an official document, representing a now well-established conviction that movements for racial and social justice represent a threat to the United States, rather than an opportunity for healing and growth. And they are steadfast enough in these convictions that they published these words, comparing their enmity for American citizens who have been tirelessly working to bring about a more just, equal, and compassionate society for everyone, with the disagreements that led to the American Revolution and the American Civil War. And while Trump is no longer in the White House, and President Biden quickly rescinded the 1776 Commission, the influential people whose ideas brought the commission into being, and the people who were willing to storm the US capitol to uphold their distorted, whitewashed version of US history and identity, are still very much around.

These are natural consequences of us failing to take seriously, as a society, the ongoing work of understanding our history: the wonderful and the terrible; the oppression and the resistance; the proud moments and the disgraceful ones. As W.E.B. Du Bois taught us back in 1935:

We shall never have a science of history until we have in our colleges [people] who regard the truth as more important than the defense of the white race, and who will not deliberately encourage students to gather thesis material in order to support a prejudice or buttress a lie.” (https://activisthistory.com/2019/12/06/white-supremacy-in-the-academy-the-1913-meeting-of-the-american-historical-association/ )

And discerning what is true and what is prejudice is where our work still lies.

The Bible Tells Me So

So, on one side, represented by the 1619 Project, we have an insistence that, in order to properly heal from our historical and present-day wounds, we have to be honest about them, and even go out of our way to learn about them. On the other side, represented by the 1776 Commission, we have an insistence that, in order to be patriotic, we have to tell a version of our history that minimizes and even hides those wounds. And while I am not aware that any of the conservatives and conspiracy theorists in my social and familial circles stormed the Capitol, I am aware that many of them are sympathetic, if not supportive, of the 1776 Commission.

Further, the people in my life that are – or have been – most insistent that remembering our mistakes is somehow undermining our ability to be a healthy society also happen to overwhelmingly subscribe to Judeo-Christian beliefs. And that just makes the whole thing stranger to me. After all, the Jewish and Christian scriptures are largely a record of people struggling, and often failing, to create a healthy society – and they wrote it all down so it could be remembered and they could do better! Psalm 106 is one such example of how this memory was included in the spiritual lives of these ancient communities.

The Psalm praised steadfast love and blesses people “who observe justice,” and then recited a list of times when their nation had failed in doing “righteousness … . Both we and our ancestors have sinned,” the Psalmist declared: “Our ancestors … rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea.” God rescued them, “But they soon forgot [God’s] works; … they had a wanton craving in the wilderness, and put God to the test in the desert”. The Psalmist then described them – their own ancestors - as jealous and wicked. Yet even when Moses persuaded God “from destroying them,” they “grumbled in their tents.” Scattered for their arrogance, they still didn’t learn and “attached themselves to” another god, eventually going so far as to practice child sacrifice. Yet through all of this, through plague and exile, the Psalm ended as it began: steadfast love brought the people back together, with each other and with God: “For their sake [God] remembered [God’s] covenant, and showed compassion according to the abundance of [God’s] steadfast love.” (Psalm 106:45 NRSV)

This is but one example of a biblical model of how to remember a difficult, painful history, and it is much more consistent with the 1619 Project than the 1776 Commission. However, we do have a biblical example of a ruling elite that refused to honestly acknowledge the painful history that preceded them. Unfortunately for lovers of the 1776 Commission, that approach lines up more closely with those on the receiving end of Jesus’ scathing denunciations in Matthew 23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Fill up, then, the measure of your ancestors. You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?” (Matthew 23:29-33 NRSV)

Resistance to truth-telling, such as the 1776 Commission and Arkansas House Bills 1218 and 1231, testify against themselves. They whitewash history and whitewash the present. They comfort themselves by saying, first, things were not so bad and, second, if they were that bad, we have progressed and outgrown those bad things, so there is no reason to bring them up again. And there are many people who quite blatantly say, “If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood” – of slaves, of immigrants, of Indigenous Peoples, and of all the marginalized communities that spoke up for justice and received violence and oppression in return.

I’m sharing these examples because people who have been critical of attempts to honestly deal with the history of the United States have often claimed some special patriotic and religious virtue. If you’re going to make that claim, it won’t be through citing the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, because these records show us a people who didn’t shy away from naming and repenting of their mistakes and those of their ancestors. And we should not shy away from honestly dealing with US history, either.

I do understand that many White people still feel bewildered by changes we have been asked to make, and that we are (thankfully) increasingly expected to have already made. And I understand that they are afraid that they will get called out for making mistakes. If this is you, I can empathize with your discomfort, but it cannot be offered as an excuse for inaction. Please let me challenge you to change your perspective. Rather than getting stuck in your fear, get busy doing the work. If you find yourself worried about making mistakes, view that as an invitation to learn and do better, so that you make fewer mistakes. If you worry that you are ignorant about the insights and demands that Black, Indigenous, and People of Color are making regarding racial justice, start paying attention to their voices and taking their words to heart. If you fear that you will somehow experience the pain of prejudice and discrimination, devote yourself to working with others to create community where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s needs are met. 

But, whatever we, and especially White people, do, we must stop letting our discomfort get in the way of action. We need to turn and honestly face the reality of 1619, so that we can better understand 2021. Because we must all take steps and do our part to dismantle White supremacy and to heal the deep, terrible wounds that racism has left on our communities and our hearts.