On teaching schoolchildren about race in America: When we know better, we do better

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Politicians confuse guilt with empathy. What they can learn from a 6-year-old and 1776.

A few years ago when my son was learning about the Civil Rights Movement, he offered his class the recent example of the Black man at Starbucks who was arrested after trying to use the bathroom.

He told me about this on our car ride home but I didn’t know where my six-year-old heard about that incident. When I asked him, he said he heard it on the news I was watching.  Even our kindergartners are flies on the walls soaking in information.

When my kindergartner processed that event on his own, he didn’t identify with the white employee and feel guilty. He identified with the Black man who needed to use the bathroom and felt empathy.

I don’t want politicians to interfere and tell him he came to the wrong conclusion.

As a veteran social studies teacher, and mom of two young students, I’m baffled by some folks’ resistance to teach the past and the present honestly.

Those supporting state bills challenging the teaching of honest history would do well to consult the Declaration of Independence, where a large section of that document is devoted to listing historical grievances.

Our grievances from the Declaration of Independence are rectified and enshrined in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

This historical pattern of expressing grievances then celebrating remedies we work together to achieve is how Americans “form a more perfect union.”

For all the times I’ve taught the Declaration of Independence, I’ve never heard from a family whose ancestors lived in Britain in 1776 that this content made their child feel guilty.

When we teach honest history and honest present, we teach empathy and growth, not guilt.

About ten years ago in my middle school world history class, I welcomed a new student from China mid-year. Shortly after his arrival I was set to teach a lesson on Tiananmen Square, which many know is an ugly historical event censored in China.

Out of empathy, I worried about adding to this student’s culture shock by exposing him to this event. After consulting with colleagues I did not censor the event from this student since I would be perpetuating China’s censorship in my American classroom. There were no complaints from the student or his family after that age-appropriate lesson.

When we know better, we do better. Folks trying to stop kids from knowing better are also interfering with their ability to do better as they fulfill the American call to “form a more perfect union.”

When politicians claim that honest history will lead to “psychological distress” (such as HB 324 in North Carolina) they’re saying students will respond with guilt, not empathy. They’re wrong.

Our students would be better served in alleviating “psychological distress” by those same legislators offering more student support staff such as psychologists, social workers, nurses, counselors, and smaller class sizes.

In North Carolina, the same legislators wanting to micromanage school curriculum continue to ignore our state’s constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” to every student as reaffirmed in the 1997 Leandro decision which has yet to be fulfilled over twenty years later.

Legislators’ obsession with curriculum is a distraction from holding lawmakers accountable for what students actually need.

Efforts to vilify educators, and censor our past and present are more reflective of history’s most notorious authoritarian rulers.

We must call on our state legislators and school boards to allow our students to grow with facts and empathy when learning about our past and present.

Our educators understand how to provide age-appropriate instruction. Our policy makers should focus on how they can best support that effort.

Kim Mackey is a National Board Certified social studies teacher for the Wake County Public School System and an active member of Wake NCAE, and Advisory Board member of Red 4 Ed NC. This post appeared originally on her website, educatEDpolicy.

Author Theodore Johnson offers a hopeful and patriotic take on combating American racism (video)

In his profound and exhilarating new book, “When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America,” author, scholar, and former U.S. Navy Commander Theodore Johnson persuasively argues that racism is both alive and healthy in our country and a profound – even existential – threat to its democracy.

Happily, however, Johnson doesn’t leave it there.  Weaving memories of his and his family’s multi-generational experiences with racism alongside strands of U.S. history, Johnson makes a persuasive, optimistic and patriotic case that we can still find a blueprint for national solidarity in the exceptional citizenship long practiced in Black America.

Johnson, who grew up in Raleigh, is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Fellows Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he undertakes research on race, politics, and American identity. Prior to joining the Brennan Center, he was a National Fellow at New America and a Commander in the United States Navy, serving for twenty years in a variety of positions, including as a White House Fellow in the first Obama administration and as speechwriter to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Last week, NC Policy Watch was fortunate enough to host Johnson for an online Crucial Conversation in which he outlined his book and responded to questions from the audience — a recording of which which can be viewed and shared via the link below. For the sake of brevity, we’ve edited out the introductions and opening niceties from the recording.


The miseducation of Black conservatives

Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson speaks at a recent event alongside Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger

An infamous one-liner from 1970s-era sitcoms goes like this: “Some of my best friends are Black.”

It’s also a classic comeback for White racists when the racist is caught being, well, racist.

When that happens, racists mysteriously pull out a Black buddy (such as the Clayton Bigsby character from the old “Dave Chappelle Show”) to secure a hood pass for the misdeed. White actors and politicians are especially adept at this magic trick.

Who are these Bigsby characters right-wingers are apparently inviting to their summer cookouts? Are they what some Blacks call sellouts?

For hundreds of years, Blacks have deemed some brothers and sisters sellouts because they are willing to betray their community for the favors of whites.

In his 2008 book titled “Sellout: The Politics of Racial Betrayal,” Dr. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor, describes “sellout” as a word Blacks use to stigmatize and marginalize other Blacks considered disloyal to the race.

When confronted about America’s history of systemic racism, many white conservatives are quick to remind us that Africans sold other Africans into slavery. They conveniently leave out the part about manipulation by European interests.

Here’s what the late Walter Rodney had to say about Europeans’ role in the slave trade in his seminal work, “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa,” which was published in 1972:

“From the beginning, Europe assumed the power to make decisions within the international trading system. An excellent illustration of that is the fact that the so-called international law which governed the conduct of nations on the high seas was nothing else but European law. Africans did not participate in its making, and in many instances, African people were simply the victims, for the law recognized them only as transportable merchandise. If the African slave was thrown overboard at sea, the only legal problem that arose was whether or not the slave ship could claim compensation from the insurers! Above all, European decision-making power was exercised in selecting what Africa should export – in accordance with European needs.”

The fact that African Americans have had traitors in our family baobab tree, like every other race, is no anomaly. Nor is it a family secret that a handful of Black people were slave owners and that some Black folks snitched on enslaved brothers and sisters to gain meritorious manumission.

One of the earliest examples of white supremacy in black face comes courtesy of William Hannibal Thomas who in 1901 published “The American Negro.”

According to UNC-Charlotte historian John David Smith, author of “Black Judas: William Hannibal Thomas and The American Negro,” Thomas’ book, “under the guise of a black self-help manual,” helped to justify Black inferiority in the minds of White Americans. Thomas’ book has served as a blueprint for Black conservative thought.

The playbook for modern Black right-wing politics can be traced to the 1980 Black Alternatives Conference held at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. The conference was organized by the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a California-based public policy institution, to counter the Black leftist movement. According to James B. Lowe’s book, “The American Directory of Certified Uncle Toms,” the Reagan-inspired Institute of Contemporary Studies, attracted about 125 black lawyers, physicians, dentists, Ivy League professors and commentators.” Read more

Further reading on Wyatt Outlaw, NC history and the cost of white supremacy

If you’ve already read today’s Policy Watch special report on the 1870 lynching of Wyatt Outlaw and its connection to the modern problems in Alamance County, you may want to read more.

Today’s piece is the first in a Policy Watch series on Alamance County that will include pieces on local government, the sheriff’s department, public schools and environmental justice.

But our initial story on Wyatt Outlaw and  the history and continuation of white supremacy in the state would not have been possible without the scholars and activists who spoke to us for the piece and the work they’ve already done. All of it is worth your time.

If you were intrigued by what  Duke University’s Dr. William Darity had to say about systemic inequality and the racial terror campaigns designed to preserve it, you should read  From Here to Equality: Reparations for Black Americans in the Twenty-First Century, Darity’s recent book with co-author A. Kirsten Mullen.

Dr. William Darity.

The Rev. Ervin Milton  talked with us about modern Alamance County and the connections to story of Wyatt Outlaw. He is a regular contributor at the Burlington Times-News. His columns, including this week’s on the meaning of Lent,  can be found here.

The Rev. Ervin Milton.


Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a developmental psychologist and assistant professor of Medicine at Duke, helped us with a closer look at the psychological aspect of white supremacist thinking and the cycle of violence it has perpetuated throughout our history. Her paper, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? The Missing Kerner Commission Report, is essential reading.

Dr. Keisha Bentley-Edwards.

For a deep dive into the life, death and legacy of Wyatt Outlaw, you need to read Dr. Carole Troxler’s “To look more closely at the man”: Wyatt Outlaw, a Nexus of National, Local, and Personal History She is a historian and professor emerita at Elon University whose work on the Outlaw story is widely considered definitive.

Dr. Carole Troxler.

North Carolina’s HBCU students are leaders in building a democracy for all

RALEIGH – One of the crown jewels of North Carolina is our world-class system of higher education. Among these stellar institutions are our Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

We are one of the top states for HBCU enrollment, with 10 schools serving 40,000 students. These HBCUs are essential to the strength of North Carolina, producing outstanding engineers, attorneys, educators, artists, entrepreneurs and leaders who help shape the destiny of our country.

As we celebrate Black History Month, we recall the rich legacy of brave student activists, of past and present, at North Carolina’s HBCUs who have played a crucial part in the civil rights and Black Lives Matter movements, championing equality and justice for all.

An early example came in February of 1960, when four freshmen at NC A&T State University sat down at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro to defy segregation. Their courageous act sparked a student-led, nationwide sit-in movement that challenged the evils of white supremacy.

That same year, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee was founded on the campus of another North Carolina HBCU, Shaw University in Raleigh. The organization would play a central role in engaging young people in the cause of civil rights.

In these and countless other examples, HBCU students have changed the course of history. The torch is now in the hands of today’s generation. We wish the battle against systemic racism and oppression were things of the past, but we know they are not. We’ve seen repeated attempts at voter suppression in recent years, and new threats loom.

In 2013, after the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a core part of the Voting Rights Act, the Republican-controlled NC General Assembly rammed through a bill that rolled back voting access in our state. A federal judge later noted that the proposal targeted “African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Thanks to a broad coalition of grassroots advocacy groups, students and everyday people standing up and fighting back, that voter suppression scheme was overturned in court.

In 2016, the GOP-led legislature once again gerrymandered our state’s voting maps. In doing so, lawmakers split the campus of NC A&T State University – the nation’s largest HBCU – into two different congressional districts, fracturing the voting power of that predominantly Black community. Students at NC A&T spoke out, organized and joined the effort to strike down the discriminatory district lines. In 2019, a state court case resulted in the maps being redrawn, and the NC A&T campus was reunited into a single congressional district.

Time and again, HBCU students have been at the forefront of defending democracy, but the work is not done. The former president and his most radical supporters continue to spread destructive lies about the 2020 election as a pretense to undercut ballot access for Black and brown Americans.

Michael Spencer

We must act now to protect voting rights and our Constitution. In North Carolina, we must demand that legislators reject efforts to enact barriers to the ballot box.

At the federal level, Congress should immediately pass the For the People Act. This is a transformative and comprehensive bill that addresses voting rights and election administration, money in politics, government transparency and ethics. The For the People Act includes provisions for automatic voter registration, strengthening ballot access and establishing independent redistricting commissions to end racial and partisan gerrymandering.

The eyes of history are upon us. We must carry on the legacy of standing against suppression and pursuing justice. Together, we can build a democracy that so many dreamed of and worked for – a democracy for us all.

Michael Spencer is the College Outreach Program Manager with Common Cause NC, a nonpartisan, grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the core values of American democracy.