Opinion | Civil Rights

Why is keeping the truth from students so politically appealing?

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Eight states have passed legislation - and another 20 are considering it - to require that educators avoid teaching about the role of racism and oppression in American history. While the legislation is new, America long has suppressed some of the truth about race relations. Why is such censorship so politically appealing at a time when the truth is both readily apparent and so much more accessible?

Shortsighted politicians may hope to score a quick victory and motivate their bases, but that victory will undermine the quality of education for all students and leave them poorly prepared to interact with a diverse workforce in a 21st-century economy. Some parents may hope to shield their children from the complicated issue of race in America, but that is a disservice to their children. 

In my work with high school students as president of ERASE Racism, I find that students of all races relish having an honest discussion of the role of race in America - its history and its present. They are faced with the truth daily, and they welcome exploring complexities and nuances with their friends at school. 

As one of those students wrote, "As a Hispanic student who has always gone to primarily white schools, I know how hard it is - and how important it is - to talk about race. It's hard because America was founded on both the concept of freedom and the fact of slavery. That's not an easy combination to explain." Yet that combination is exactly what some politicians would like to hide from students who care about their country and their peers enough to want to discuss it.

In showing that race cannot be avoided in school, another student wrote, "Ironically, one place where school districts arrange for students of different races to interact is on the athletic field. Yet that was where I found the racism most vocal. I played lacrosse for four years, and players from predominantly white schools regularly used the N-word to psych out players of color on competitors' teams. Because I'm of Pakistani heritage, I was often called 'terrorist' as well."

Race is a reality in schools, whether the schools are integrated or segregated. Politicians can't remove that reality; neither can parents. Students want to understand and explore race.

A white student wrote: "Our past consists of more than just heroes. ... Not allowing us to discuss and explore 'sensitive topics' avoids essential conversations. Developing a safe learning environment is impossible if accurate information is restricted."

Much of the proposed and passed legislation contains vague language that allows for a student - or a parent - to state that he or she experienced "discomfort" with a discussion of race and for a teacher to be deemed guilty for encouraging it without much recourse. After all, how could the teacher prove that the student did not feel discomfort? 

Yet comfort should not be the arbiter of what can be taught. Should students feel good when they learn of details about slavery? Central to quality education is not comfort but facts.

New Hampshire's House Bill 2 explicitly forbids a teacher to state that an individual might be "inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously." This stands in opposition to the current consensus of scientific research on how racism operates

America's students live in a world of racial inequality and are meant to succeed in that world. But some politicians want schools to ignore that reality - how we got to this point and where we are now. They want to forestall any efforts to address inequalities.

The 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, which destroyed 35 blocks of a renowned Black community and resulted in the deaths of as many as 300 Black people, underscores the absurdity of hiding the truth. "With Tulsa trying to maintain its place as the oil capital of the world, the riot reflected terribly on the city and subsequently wasn't included in history books or newspapers for decades," writes the History Channel. A survey conducted by The Oklahoman this year found that a majority of Oklahomans learned about the Tulsa Race Massacre outside of school. 

The same motivation may be behind today's shortsightedness: a short-term gain, political expediency, and avoidance of embarrassment. But unlike the perpetrators in Tulsa, today's politicians will be on record for all to see and to remember - their commitment to hiding the truth that is transparent to everyone.

Elaine Gross is president of the civil rights organization ERASE Racism. Follow on Twitter @EraseRacism.

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