The Tennessee legislature has outdone itself. And that’s saying something. The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight has declared war on history itself. The new law withholds state funds from any public school that teaches “critical race theory,” which is basically the notion that racial discrimination was baked into the institutions of American society. Never mind that it actually was. We just don’t want our schools teaching kids about it. And if they do, you can forget about getting your fair share of state tax dollars (which your residents actually paid in to the state) to pay teachers, purchase computers and keep the lights on at your schools. The state can put you out of business.
There’s so much wrong with the new law that it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s begin with the problem of a state dictating to local schools what they can and cannot teach. It’s not quite as bad as telling folks what they can and can’t do in the privacy of their homes, but it’s close. Local control of schools is as basic to America as freedom of speech.
The state is diverse. There is no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to education. What works for Memphis may not work for Madisonville. Oak Ridge might want to teach Arabic or Mandarin Chinese. Probably not Bulls Gap. For a Republican-led legislature to abandon such a bedrock conservative principle shows just how desperate some of us are to avoid the truth.
And about that: The truth is that racial discrimination was ingrained in nearly every aspect of American life including the Constitution itself. It considered African Americans to be three-fifths of a person for purposes of taxation and representation and not a person at all for other purposes. But don’t take my word for it. Google the Dred Scott decision on your phone and you can read it straight from the U.S. Supreme Court.
But that’s ancient history, you say. We fought a bloody war and passed three constitutional amendments to solve the problem of institutional racism in America.
We did. And for about 10 years, African Americans were able to work, vote, own property, marry, attend college and even be elected to public office as our fellow Maryvillian, Mayor William Bennett Scott, did in 1869 when he became Tennessee’s first African American mayor and the publisher of its first Black-owned newspaper. Maryville College also distinguished itself in the 1870s by becoming one of America’s first Southern colleges to admit Black students.
Yet all this and more came crashing down when Union troops finally vacated the South, and Jim Crow raised his yellow beak. Poll
taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses were used to deny African Americans the right to vote. In 1901, the legislature prohibited
even private colleges like Maryville from admitting Blacks. Much of what thousands
had bled and died for in the Civil War was now lost.
When ALCOA came to Blount County, the pattern continued. Black workers were hired almost exclusively in the smelting plant — the hottest, most-dangerous place to work. And, even there, they were paid less than their White coworkers.
When all-White Alcoa High School purchased new textbooks for its students, the old textbooks were handed down to all-Black Hall High School. When Blount County Commissioner Jackie Hill graduated as salutatorian from Hall, she was awarded a $300 scholarship from the Aluminum Company. Her White counterpart at Alcoa received a $1,000 scholarship.
That’s what institutional racism looks like. Hall High couldn’t even play their football games on Friday nights because — unlike Alcoa’s White high school — they were not furnished with outdoor lights.
Housing and health care were no better. Black families routinely were denied mortgages to purchase homes in White neighborhoods. Even if you were able to scrape together the money and dared move into such a neighborhood, you just might receive a visit from masked men in robes. The grand dragon himself lived here in Blount County.
Black veterans returning from World War II frequently were denied GI Bill education benefits that were showered on White veterans like my father. The same year President Kennedy was assassinated, civil rights leader Medgar Evers bled to death from a gunshot wound outside a hospital emergency room in Jackson, Mississippi, because it refused to treat him on account of his race.
More ancient history, you say, but that is precisely the point. It is history. Our history. And studying it with a critical eye now can result in the defunding of your school.
Even today, the cold hard truth is that a defendant in a capital murder case is 10 times as likely to receive the death penalty if the victim is White as opposed to Black. Again, that’s what systemic racism looks like. It’s not that most White people are racist and walk around looking for a chance to stick it to Black people, but that the systems we have created have an unconscious (and sometimes even conscious) racial bias. Because we have unconscious biases. All of us. Black and White. It’s why Black store patrons routinely are followed around by store detectives while neither I, nor anyone in my family, has ever been followed.
Drive around the Hall Oldfield community and then, drive around Windridge, Cross Creek, Briarcliff or Saint Ives. There are reasons why the houses are so small in one and so large in the others. There are reasons why so many of the patrons at a country club are White and so many of the servers and groundskeepers are black.
But you can relax. Tennessee’s schoolchildren will never have to learn those reasons.