Critical race theory? Nah, these racists want to ban kids’ books about the civil rights movement

In the first book listed, Moms for Liberty specifically object to the following:

Pages 22-23 shows photographs of white firemen blasting black children to the point of “bruising their bodies and ripping off their clothes.”

Pages 18-19 show photographs of white and colored drinking fountains, asking “Which of these fountains looks nicer to you.”

This is not an objection to an academic theory about the way race structures U.S. law. This is an objection to simply showing children photographs from events in the nation’s relatively recent history. The right likes to use about two lines of quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. to object to its own false representation of CRT, but it turns out the objection is equally to teaching about the events that shaped King’s life, and the activism that made him famous.

It’s not hard to figure out why some people might not want kids knowing that history.

Similarly, Moms for Liberty thinks it is against Tennessee law that, in Ruby Bridges Goes to School,

Pages 2-3 depict photographs of a neighborhood sign that reads “WE WANT WHITE TENANTS IN OUR WHITE COMMUNITY” and a smiling white boy holding a sign that says “We wont [sic] go to school with Negroes.”

Pages 14-15 shows a group of white people holding up signs that read “We want segragation [sic]” and “We don’t want to Integrate.”

Pages 24-25 shows the Normal Rockwell painting The Problem We All Live With, depicting Ruby Bridges walking to school with the “N word” in the background. 

(A note: Moms for Liberty is awfully insistent about including “[sic]” on historical signs while their own complaint is riddled with errors. Yes, they really said Normal Rockwell. Related, yes, they really objected to a Norman Rockwell painting being shown to second-graders.)

As with the book about King, these are not objections to students being taught about the ways that racism continues to shape U.S. law and policy. These are objections to students being acquainted with the basic historical record through photographs of things that really happened—and that happened often enough for a whole lot of such images to be easily available. The story of Ruby Bridges is something that happened to a child younger than the second-graders who the Moms for Liberty think shouldn’t be reading about it. And that child is now a woman younger than the grandparents of some of those second-graders, showing how very recent this history is.

What Moms for Liberty’s complaint doesn’t say is that Ruby Bridges Goes to School ends on this note:

Now black children and white children can go to the same schools.

I like to visit schools.

I tell my story to children.

I tell children that black people and white people can be friends.

And most important, I tell children to be kind to each other.

That’s the kind of children’s book the anti-CRT crowd is talking about when they claim that their precious white children are being taught to feel guilt or shame. And Williamson County, Tennessee, is, by the way, a place where in 2019, two teachers required eighth-graders to imagine themselves as slave-owners and “Create a list of expectations for your family’s slaves.”

What do they want taught? Moms for Liberty recommend a textbook by W. Cleon Skousen, a conspiracy theorist and John Birch Society supporter. “Skousen’s book characterizes ‘black children as ‘pickaninnies’ and American slave owners as the ‘worst victims’ of slavery,’” Legum writes. “The book claims that the Founders wished to free the slaves but ‘[m]ost of [the slaves] were woefully unprepared for a life of competitive independence.’ Skousen asserts that abolitionists ‘did much to perpetuate slavery’ by taking a ‘too militant’ approach.”

That’s the history they do want taught. The explicitly white supremacist history.

The thing is, I get their objections to teaching Ruby Bridges Goes to School. It’s a scary book if you’re a committed racist who doesn’t want anything getting in between your kids and the racism you’re teaching them. After the Moms for Liberty started agitating against the book, I got a copy and read it to my kindergartener. He was fascinated and appalled. He had a lot of questions. It opened up avenues for us to discuss racism in other settings.

This book actually does not once use the word “racist” or, in the text, attribute the racist beliefs it lays out in simple, direct language (“A long time ago, some people thought that black people and white people should not be friends”) to white people in particular. It’s always “some people.” Even in describing the crowds of people opposed to Bridges going to “a school for white children,” it’s just “some people.” Now, even a young child can see in the pictures that all the people are white, but there is never any implication that all white people believed this.

In fact, the book makes much of Bridges’ white teacher, Mrs. Henry (who “loved me,” Bridges writes), not mentioning that Mrs. Henry was the only teacher at the school who would teach a Black child. In addition to three pictures of Mrs. Henry, the book includes a picture of Bridges with the white children who eventually did come back to school and were willing to play with her and be pictured with her. It includes a picture of John Steinbeck and a discussion of his praise of Bridges. It mentions Eleanor Roosevelt writing to Bridges. But even though the book bends over backwards to never, ever imply that all white people are racist and to amply picture and describe white people supporting Bridges, it is a powerful teaching tool for young children relating how racism operated in the United States well within living memory. And that makes it a very dangerous book, if you’re racists like Moms for Liberty. (Ruby Bridges Goes to School doesn’t say “racist,” but I sure as hell do.)

This is what the anti-CRT crowd really opposes. They say “critical race theory” but they mean this book that essentially tells a redemption story, from a nation in which “in some places, black children and white children could not go to the same schools” to one in which they can and do, and the woman who was once the child who had to be protected by marshals now tells children most of all to be kind to each other.

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