Column: The arc is bending toward whitewashed history

By STEVE NELSON

For the Valley News

Published: 02-13-2023 10:45 AM

We all have to live with ourselves, but occasionally one is left to wonder how.

This week on MSNBC, Steve Bumbaugh, College Board senior vice president, did his corporation’s bidding by defending the indefensible whitewash of the AP African American studies curriculum. It was unfortunate, yet predictable, that a Black man would be dispatched to do the dirty work. (Full disclosure: I think AP courses are a pox on American education, but that is beside the point for the moment.)

I won’t explicate his full basket of deplorable justifications, but he repeatedly insisted that all the “controversial” stuff was still in the digitized library! Thin gruel, that.

But I write to offer a broader perspective on DeSantisized education across the nation. The relentless attacks on Critical Race Theory, diversity and inclusion, gay rights, and gender identity are of a piece with violent insurrection, election denial, voter suppression and so-called parents’ rights.

Conservative apologists claim that we can still teach about slavery and the Civil War as long as we don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. It’s the white privilege-feminism-reparations-trans athletes outplaying my daughter-affirmative action-systemic racism that gets their blood boiling. But we white folks, especially men, need to have our feelings hurt a bit. The very things that boil their blood are the things for which I am most grateful.

Like many other liberals/progressives, I grew up with what I believed to be “good” values. Neither I nor my extended family members harbored overtly racist views. We supported civil rights, women’s rights and, later, gay rights. The limitations of these “good” values were largely invisible in the self-contained communities of relative privilege we enjoyed. Being a good liberal was always so easy.

Facing my own white male privilege, knowing and loving gay and transgender students, and studying glaring inequality in education have made my life immeasurably richer. Among the collateral benefits of recognizing one’s own privilege is the inarguable corollary: My systemic privilege is de facto evidence of systemic racism. They are inextricably connected. You can’t have one without the other.

This lifelong learning (and I’m not done) has expanded my compassion, deepened my kindness, increased the love in my life and, as privilege would have it, cost me nothing.

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The frequently misused quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” often attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. but likely first said by 19th-century American Transcendentalist Theodore Parker, may be proven true. But the “arc” at the moment is trending down.

Nearly every aspect of conservative political policy and rhetoric is a response to feminism, civil rights, gay rights and secularism. For several decades the arc bent toward justice, but the heavy weight of white resentment and fear, the deep-seated insecurities of straight men, the backlash toward women’s rights and the rise of Christian nationalism are bending that arc downward at the moment. Everything else is a sideshow.

It is foolish to ignore that white men, mostly wealthy white men, control this narrative. It is their need for economic and social dominance that animates everything in the conservative resistance to change. Do you think they care about the fools who ran their errand on Jan. 6, 2021? Do you think they care about the actual rights of the parents whose names they invoke to suppress truthful curriculum? Do you think they care about or share the absurd beliefs of the members of the evangelical base who support them? You can be quite sure that, in private, the architects of conservative movement are laughing, including all the way to the banks where their fortunes grow.

But back to that arc ...

When I read or hear about the latest effort to control what kids learn about race, racism, gender and sexuality, I see more silver lining than dark cloud. Trump, DeSantis, et al. can browbeat and ban to their shrunken hearts’ delight, but today’s youths won’t buy it. Even in the backwaters of the Deep South, kids are gay- and trans-allies and can read every book their parents ban from the library. Removing Black Lives Matter and Ibram X. Kendi from the AP curriculum will not slow the inexorable changes in our country. Prohibiting schools from teaching about same-sex parents will not stop same-sex parents from teaching us.

The tide is turning, and even nasty little men like Ron DeSantis won’t be able to stop waves of justice from washing away the stench he’ll leave behind.

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