Some truths should make us uncomfortable

Give credit to the Carmel High School students who stood up to the community members who think they shouldn’t be exposed to hard truths about race in America. That takes courage in a district where only 7% of students are Black or Hispanic.

According to the Indy Star, five students took to the mic at a recent Carmel Clay School Board meeting to defend the district’s efforts to be more inclusive about race, gender and other factors.

“They shared what it’s like to be a student in Carmel and stressed their support for the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work happening in the district,” reporter MJ Slaby wrote. “The students said it fosters understanding and helps to provide representation to all students.”

You’d think supporting equity and inclusion would be a no-brainer, but it’s not. In several Hamilton County school districts – Carmel, Hamilton Southeastern, Westfield-Washington and Noblesville – residents have turned out at board meetings to voice objections.

They claim the schools are teaching an academic approach called “critical race theory.” School officials say they aren’t doing that, but critics contend that schools teach and promote critical race theory when they adopt diversity awareness, culturally responsive teaching and a focus on social justice.

Critical race theory is an academic framing taught in law and graduate schools, not K-12 schools, but it has influenced how we understand race. For an explanation, see this article by Stephen Sawchuck in Education Week. “The core idea,” he writes, “is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

This is a key point. Many conservatives think of racism as an individual trait: If you don’t hate Black people, then you aren’t a racist and racism isn’t your concern. Indiana’s Republican legislators could boo and heckle Black colleagues, then insist, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” Liberals have come to think of racism as systemic and embedded in institutions, laws and practices. Thus, white people can be unprejudiced but benefit from racist systems and white privilege.

The split is reflected in Hamilton County, an affluent, suburban area north of Indianapolis that voted 52-46 for Donald Trump over Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election.

Of course, alarm over critical race theory isn’t something that Hamilton County residents dreamed up their own. It’s the current right-wing bogeyman. An analysis by the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America found that Fox News covered the topic 550 times in the past 11 months.

Politicians have followed the lead. Nearly a dozen states have banned or are seeking to ban the teaching of critical race theory. The bans use similar language, claiming the theory is “divisive” and promotes the idea that one race is better than another – which, of course, it doesn’t.

Legislatures in Arkansas, Iowa and Mississippi would ban teaching the 1619 Project, a New York Times project that centers the role of Black people in achieving American ideals of freedom and equality. We’re lucky Indiana legislators aren’t meeting, or they would surely jump on the bandwagon.

Teachers worry the laws, whatever their wording, will have a chilling effect on teaching American history and current events. School officials, hemmed in by politics and averse to conflict, are likely to discourage teaching about controversies. But as Washington Post columnist and former George W. Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson points out, telling the truth about race will make us uncomfortable.

Native Americans were forced from their lands and cruelly slaughtered. Black people were enslaved for nearly 250 years, then subjected to Jim Crow subjugation for 100 years more. Lynching was common. Discrimination in schools and housing robbed African Americans of opportunity. One hundred years ago, white mobs attacked Tulsa’s prosperous Greenwood District, displacing approximately 10,000 Black residents from their homes and killing between 75 and 300 people.

As Gerson writes, historians “might dwell on historical horrors and put them into narrow ideological narratives, but the events they recount are real.” Some people may not like it, but learning about American history is sure to make us uncomfortable. And it should.

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