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Why I SHOULD Feel Bad!
Whitewashing History for the sake of my feelings
One of the common tropes that comes out of the “parents rights” movement is a concern that discussions of the dark parts of American history like slavery and Jim Crow will make white students “feel bad”. The more extreme versions of this argument suggest that teaching African American history is designed to make white students feel guilty for something they weren’t responsible for.
It almost goes without saying that these concerns are very unlikely to have been raised by actual students in actual classes. Of course, there will be some who have been primed to identify feelings of guilt and are then ready to tell their story to the Twitter mob ready to be outraged.
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Today is the 102nd anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. That a thriving black middle class had emerged in parts of downtown Tulsa with shops, restaurants, and a movie theater was an outrage to powerful White interests in the town.
So, beginning on May 31 and continuing through June 1st, there was literally a war on the black community in Tulsa. Over 10 thousand people were left homeless and 36 people died (26 blacks and 10 whites).
As horrifying as this situation was and what it said about race relations in post-Reconstruction America, even more upsetting to me is that I never learned about it in school. Not even when pursuing graduate degrees in sociology and eventually teaching courses in race relations. I’m embarrassed to say that I really learned about the Tulsa Massacre in 2019 when I saw the opening episode of Watchmen on HBO.
I knew all about the Watts riot or the Detroit riots or the riots after MLK was assassinated or the riots after the Rodney King police acquittals. Those all fit the modern motif — inner city residents, predominantly of color, set off by some event burning property and attacking passersby.
The devastation of Tulsa was far greater than most of these well-know events. Why isn’t that a central part of what is taught in schools (at appropriate grade levels)?
For that matter, I didn’t appreciate the full scale of the 1919 Chicago Race Riot until 2018 when I saw a marvelous exhibition at the Chicago Historical Society. That followed an even more violent pattern than Tulsa. A black teenager swimming in Lake Michigan drifted into the Whites-only part of the beach. He was beaten by the white beach-goers. The resulting violence had an extended period of predominantly white on black violence with gangs of young white men roaming the South and West sides of Chicago.
I probably knew that a “race riot” had happened in Chicago in the early 20th century and had heard the phrase applied to other settings in the South as well. But what was never made clear about these “riots” was that they were determined attacks by whites on blacks (this will really mess with Elon’s favorite memes!).
Why was I not taught these things? In large measure, it was because we have our favorite color-blind narratives about Civil Rights in America. We talk about the integration of Central High in Little Rock but don’t spend much time on all those who tried to keep those students out. We talk about the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act without talking about those who conjured ways of denying those rights and those votes. And of course, we remember only that one phrase from MLK’s “I Have a Dream”.
To talk about the murder and carnage and hatefulness that whites perpetrated on Blacks at points in our history makes us feel bad. We say, that was horrible but aren’t you glad we don’t do that anymore? Which is a helpful fiction, but doesn’t help us see the world as it is.
I’ve spent several years trying to articulate what institutional repentance might entail. Evangelical Christians are well versed in the Fall motif. We recognize individual sin and ask people to repent and ask Jesus into their hearts, so that they are “saved”. But how do we “save” institutions?
The blindness (willful or otherwise) to that question is behind the CRT scares now running amok in our society. It makes us afraid to confront the realities of our history. But if we expect repentance of individuals, doesn’t the same expectation exist for schools, cities, statehouses, and our national legislature? Such a repentance would require us to be open and honest about sins committed in the past and to truly lament what happened. It’s the necessary step to moving forward as a society.
If I had learned in school about Tulsa and Chicago and the lynchings that continued through the first third of the twentieth century and the realities of chain-gang labor in the South, I would have been very sad. I would have asked my mother “how could we have done such things?” I would be horrified and asked what I would have done if I lived in the midst of those events.
I would have felt bad. I would have felt vicariously guilty.
And that would be an absolutely essential part of my growth as a person.