“We can’t just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That’s what great nations do: They come to terms with their dark sides. And we’re a great nation.” — President Joe Biden at the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre in Tulsa, Ok.
Many people had never heard of the Tulsa Massacre, in which a mob of white people in 1921 bombed and destroyed a prosperous black neighborhood and many of its residents until they saw the comic turned TV show “Watchmen.”
Many people have also never heard of what happened in Corbin, Ky., in 1919 when a white mob forced Black railroad workers, along with nearly every other Black person in town, onto railroad cars and out of town. According to George Wright’s “Racial Violence in Kentucky, 1865-1940,” the riot was triggered by false rumors that a night watchman had been stabbed by two Black men. “As a way of making sure that other blacks knew that they were not welcome in Corbin, local whites adopted the practice that seems to have been used in an undetermined number of Kentucky cities: They put up a sign saying ‘N------ Don’t Be Here When The Sun Goes Down.’ The sign was displayed in Corbin until the 1960s.”
Many Kentuckians don’t know about the Corbin riots or the many “sundown” towns that dotted Kentucky or the many Black people who died at the hands of white lynch mobs, despite Wright’s careful accounting. Like Tulsa, they were covered up, whitewashed, forgotten. But instead of learning our history — and possibly coming to grips with it — some state legislators here and elsewhere have decided we should ban such discussions from our classrooms and lecture halls.
“Critical race theory” is yet the latest cultural bugbear of Republican politicians, who are skilled at firing up their base while completely missing the point. It’s doubtful that Ky. Reps Joe Fischer, Matt Lockett or Jennifer Henson Decker truly know or understand what critical race theory is — an academic framework that posits many institutions have systemic racism at their core — but they are sure it will “indoctrinate our children” and pit us (white people) against the other (people of color). They are simply following whatever conservative think tank told them this would make a good political target. Nonetheless, the vague language of their bills would scare plenty of teachers into simply not talking about racial injustices of the past and present.
A new ‘bogeyman’
The bills — proposed in Kentucky and already passed elsewhere — are absurd on many levels, and wouldn’t last a day past a First Amendment court challenge. But they do show the GOP’s skill at manipulating cultural issues into concepts twisted beyond recognition. Conservatives finally came around to admitting that slavery was horrific and segregation a moral travesty. Now we have to enter gently into other truths about our history, the era of Jim Crow terror in which Black people were routinely lynched; redlining, in which federal housing policies pushed people of color into urban slums; about Black veterans denied the benefits of the GI Bill after World War II; about a criminal justice system that funnels people of color from schools into prison. The “states rights” dog whistles of the 1960s to resist the civil rights movement have morphed into CRT, “wokeism,” and the scary “Marxist” agenda of declaring that Black lives should matter as much as white ones.
The police murder of George Floyd and the police killing of Breonna Taylor did a lot to bring these issues to the fore in one fell swoop, forcing many white people to face the enormity of crimes they never knew about to begin with. No wonder they’re scared.
So instead of reckoning and reconciliation, they’re headed to the bunker, pointing with shaky fingers at “critical race theory,” which in the words of Nation writer Jeet Heer has become the “bogeyman” that anarchism and communism were in past generations. “It is a conjured up scapegoat for social problems whose true sources cannot be confronted,” he wrote. Namely that white Americans have done terrible things to Black Americans for many, many years, and we still have not atoned.
Legislate from fear
Never mind that it used to be GOP orthodoxy that we let local schools control themselves. Luckily for our society, youth and education will almost certainly turn back the backlash.
Abbey Grace, a 23-year-old social worker in Corbin, first learned about the Corbin expulsions in a class at the University of the Cumberlands. She and her classmates, nearly all from Eastern Kentucky, and some from Corbin, were astounded to learn about the history from the documentary “Trouble Behind” from 1991.
“It was really nasty and ugly and there was no denying it,” she said. “A lot of people in my class had never heard of it and it made people uncomfortable.”
Grace joined the Sunup Initiative, a local group attempting to come to grips with Corbin’s racial past and helped organize Black Lives Matter protests a year ago this month. Her grandfather stopped speaking to her for her political activism.
“This legislative effort (to ban critical race theory) is one of fear because they don’t want people to learn more about other ideologies because it makes them face what actually happened,” Grace said. “They’re scared that kids of the future will learn about things and form their own opinions and ideas.”
Teaching children that the terrors of slavery and Jim Crow morphed into other forms of segregation and discrimination in many sectors of U.S. society is not demonization. It’s history. Too many of us never got the full story, and the hysteria over critical race theory is just another distraction keeping us from a better understanding and a potential reckoning with our past.