OPINION: Our Tennessee lawmakers once again put 'systemic racism' on full display

Pam Sohn, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Tenn.
·4 min read

May 4—Tennessee's Republican lawmakers are mounting a last-minute effort to ban public schools' teaching of certain concepts involving systemic racism, with the bill's sponsor saying citizens "must take a stand against hucksters, charlatans and useful idiots peddling identity politics."

You can't make this stuff up. That was the lead of Tuesday's news story about legislators seeking to whitewash educational discussion of systemic racism in U.S. history.

As far as this page is concerned, the only "hucksters, charlatans and useful idiots peddling identity politics" in this instance are the Tennessee Republican lawmakers who are pushing yet another ban in search of a problem that exists only in their fearful fever dreams.

But these lawmakers don't want just a ban. The measure, introduced by Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, as an amendment to an education rules bill he is carrying, would allow state education officials to withhold funding from any school promoting or including discussion of systemic racism in the curriculum or supplemental instructional material.

"Today, subversive factions are seeking to undermine our unique form of government, of the people, by the people and for the people," Ragan told House Education Administration Committee members Monday.

Subversive factions like the Proud Boys, QAnon, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and white supremacist or extremist groups that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, maybe? We wonder if discussing that particular bit of culture war history might trigger a funding yank from Ragan and his ilk.

One of their examples of supposedly wayward teaching is this: "An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

Oh, the irony.

But this isn't new in conservative speak. In August of 2019, a training session for Hamilton County teachers sparked local controversy when A nationally-known motivational speaker addressed teachers in Hamilton County School's Urban Education Institute.

The presentation included slides on racism and white privilege. Some of those slides went viral when the head of a local conservative group known as Hamilton Flourishing posted them to Facebook. Hamilton Flourishing is a nonprofit think tank fashioned after the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.

The fact that this became a controversy at all speaks volumes. It screams that we need to continue a conversation about race and culture, whether local and state conservatives think so or not.

In the teacher session, examples of white privilege were that white people are less likely to be followed, interrogated or searched by law enforcement; their skin tone will not affect their credit or financial responsibility; when accused of a crime, white people are portrayed as good people; and they don't lose opportunities when mistakes are made.

(If you don't think that's true, look at conservatives' differing attitudes about the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and last summer's Black Lives Matter protests following George Floyd's murder.)

In the 2019 Hamilton Flourishing Facebook post, a group official wrote, "This is what Hamilton County employees and teachers had to sit through. This is called professional development. The liberal left is running the school system and pushing their agenda onto our children with our tax dollars."

Taxpayers should be furious, the official wrote.

At that time, on this page we wrote: "Well, yes. School leaders and many taxpayers are furious — furious that our schools are in such bad shape after years of 'implicit' institutional bias, a bias defined largely, according to our leaders and to Jackson and other experts, as 'unconscious' bias."

Some months later, a school board election became mired in debate over the word "equity" in education. A conservative candidate who helped found Hamilton Flourishing claimed it was a "negative" term.

The problem, he and other conservatives said, isn't educational equity or systemic racism or either unconscious or institutional bias. They used code words like "fatherless families" and "students in poverty."

The point is simple. We all — educators, students, lawmakers, police, companies, churches — need to talk about this, teach about it and learn about it. Our history — at our founding and yesterday — speaks for itself. We all have biases that, by shortcut, we use to make complex things seem easier with generalities, stereotypes, even preferences. But if we don't regularly reexamine our shortcut stereotypes, they stunt us.

Racism is in our history. And yes, progress has been made, but not enough. Columnist Charles Blow noted on this page Tuesday: "American racism has evolved and became less blunt, but it has not become less effective. The knife has simply been sharpened. Now systems do the work that once required the overt actions of masses of individual racists."

Not every American, or every conservative or even every system is racist. But we must be vigilant to stop this beating of the "culture wars" drum.

Now with this General Assembly gambit, we are ashamed today to be Tennesseans. We are aghast at the conservatives in our government who would defund schools for thoughtful examination and learning about our history and our current society — for learning about the very things that may yet prevent America from being indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.