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The Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission.
Patrick recalled the horror he felt as a small child integrating a suburban school district. He rode the bus to school early in the school year with an armed law enforcement officer standing near his seat. He often stared at the officer’s holstered gun.
Through his window, Patrick saw crowds of angry faces, signs declaring the school a “white” school, and even a Black doll hung in effigy. He and the other bus riders entered the school through the cafeteria behind the school.
No one had asked about his feelings until I did. I then worked for the Louisville Courier-Journal. I interviewed him for a newspaper story.
By that time, he’d become a man but those chilling, morning bus rides still rattled around in his gut.
So much of the ever-changing debate about critical race theory — a term for an academic body of work not taught in K-12 public schools — centers the feelings of white students. We rarely seem concerned about how Black students have felt in public schools.
In October, for example, a news report said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta, wondered if CRT led to young, white students feeling unnecessary shame.
“If you are confronted with the fact that you, because of the color of your skin, are racist, that can manifest shame,” Williams was quoted as saying.
Let’s talk about shame.
Before Patrick, I met Percy, a quiet, middle school student. Percy’s teacher regularly tormented him, calling him, “Darkman” or “Dark Vader.” Percy wouldn’t fight back. He’d just drop his head and cry.
School terrified Percy. His grades plunged. His mother sued, but Percy likely has similarly traumatic memories rattling around his gut.
Contrast this with the Virginia high school student who complained of “night terrors” after reading “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, a book that endeavors to teach us about facing a difficult past.
Several Black men, now in their 60s, told me how white high school coaches told them that they were good enough to start on their athletic teams, but there were already too many Black players, so they wouldn’t make the team.
One white, 1960s-era coach, who defiantly started five Black basketball players, said officials told him to only play two Black players at home, three on the road, and five when behind. Sports opened doors to higher education and eventual careers. Imagine the systemic thefts so many young, Black men endured.
This isn’t all in the past.
Officials at my 19-year-old son’s former school had no issue with taking him and the rest of the football team to play in a city where Confederate battle flags flapped in the stands.
But a white kid in Virginia had a nightmare, so now the nation must reimagine curricula.
This centering of white students’ feelings is the very definition of systemic racism. Where were all these “do-gooders,” now suddenly concerned about students’ feelings, when white adults were terrorizing Black children such as Patrick and Percy?
I once interviewed Earnest Gaines, author of classics such as “A Gathering of Old Men,” and “A Lesson Before Dying.” We spoke as progressives wrongfully but successfully removed the literary classic “Huckleberry Finn,” by the incomparable Mark Twain, from widespread study.
Why? The N-word appeared roughly 200 times in the book.
We should keep politicians out of classrooms. Gaines disagreed with the book’s removal. I did too.
I’d learned that despite that horrid word, Huck Finn critiqued racism. Few of the white characters had much redeeming value. Twain described Huck’s abusive father this way:
“There warn’t no color in his face, where his face showed; it was white; not like another man’s white, but a white to make a body sick, a white to make a body’s flesh crawl — a tree-toad white, a fish-belly white.”
Feelings are important, but learning what’s beneath those feelings is crucial.
I’d have felt uncomfortable hearing that word tumble from the mouths of teachers and classmates. But exploring racism’s societal cruelties through Twain, Huck and Jim, with those classmates, would have proven more important.
Teachers teaching 7-year-olds they are “oppressors” or “victims” are doing it wrong. Race is complex, and few Americans truly understand our racial history. I’ll concede also that some of this content likely isn’t meant for small children.
We need honesty in education. Administrators and legislators taking action predicated on the fears of the white majority, without regard for its impact on Black children, fail all children. We must examine the full scope of the systems that created the wide swath of racial hurt in the first place.
Or we’ll never find relief from the centuries-old reckoning still rattling in our collective gut.
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