A BOOK WORTH TEACHING: It says racism and caste are not synonymous, but certainly linked.

Rep. Mark Lowery, the Maumelle Republican, hasn’t given up his fight to be sure Arkansas school children aren’t taught about the ugly racial history of the United States in all its fullness.

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He’s withdrawn a bill to prevent teaching of the 1619 Project, the New York Times’ account of what slavery brought to our shores and whose legacy endures. He’s withdrawn a bill aimed at discouraging the teaching of racial and social injustice, from kindergarten through college.

But he is not done. He re-entered the fray last week with the filing of HB 1761, named misleadingly as such  legislation always is, the Arkansas Ethnic and Racial Equality Act.

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It opens with statements of high purpose about common origins, quotes Martin Luther King and proclaims the nation was founded on equality (conspicuously untrue as to the Constitution’s treatment of women and slaves).

Here’s the meat:

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6-16-1603. Instructional materials.

(a) Curricula, reading materials, teachers’ guides, computer programs, computer applications, programs, counseling, and activities in public schools and open-enrollment public charter schools shall not express, depict, or teach any of the following:

(1) That any race or ethnicity is superior to any other race or ethnicity;

(2) That any race or ethnicity is inherently racist;

(3) That any race or ethnicity should feel guilt or shame because of their race or ethnicity;

(4) That any race or ethnicity should be blamed for societal problems;

(5) That violence, domestic terrorism, or the overthrow of the United States or its economic system are good for any race or ethnicity;

(6) That the United States, as a nation, is inherently racist;

(7) The promotion of prejudice or discrimination toward any race or ethnicity.

 

(b) A public school or an open-enrollment charter school shall not express, depict, or teach about race or ethnicity in a manner that prevents or inhibits fair and open discourse that employs reason as a guide for deliberation in the exchange of ideas and opposing points of view.

 

6-16-1604. Right to review.

A parent or legal guardian of a student may review any curricula, reading materials, teachers’ guides, computer programs, computer applications, programs, counseling, and activities in a public school or an open-enrollment public charter school in which his or her child is enrolled.

This, it appears to a person who called it to my intention, as another attempt to muzzle the likes of the 1619 Project “with prettier language.”

Some people and practices ARE inherently racist. Good example: Our relatively recent Jim Crow past and it’s lingering impact on housing patterns, education and health.  Sometimes overthrow of systems is a good thing.  Marching for justice is a good thing, though some call it domestic terrorism. Both-sidesism is not a good thing when it comes to slavery. Happy slaves are a Walt Disney fiction. Brutal whippings, rape and lynching for minor offenses are the reality as are the lingering after-effects today.

Lowery might need to worry about more than declarations regarding racism.

I’m in the process of reading a stunning book by Isabel Wilkerson, “Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents.”

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We are a country that, like India and like Nazi Germany, has had a difficult time shedding a caste system. The systems can create literal untouchables, with skin color once a ready identifier of the untouchable caste in America. In my lifetime, people of color couldn’t drink from the same water fountain as white people or share the same swimming pool. A candidate for Arkansas governor in 1966 (his son a current legislator) would cross a street to avoid shaking the hand of a black voter.

Wilkerson writes in “Caste” that these are just signifiers of a system of social stratification, one that followers believe is divinely ordained. A higher caste is an inherited privilege that must be protected (thus even poor, non-slave-owning whites fought to preserve slavery in the Civil War because they were defending their own higher caste). Such systems down through history have been enforced by terror and cruelty. The justice system and, at times, the Arkansas legislature, provide ready examples of how those of lower caste, not only racial minorities, are mistreated to protect their “betters”.

It’s a masterful, disturbing book. At a certain level, of course, I understood slavery and Jim Crow laws were bad. But the book provides vivid examples of just how bad. And the past is not even past. Confederate flags are indeed about a certain “heritage,” but also about reverence for and perpetuation of the caste system.

Until I read this book, it had not occurred to me that Africans didn’t think of themselves as Black people; they identified themselves by ethnic origins. Apartheid in South Africa along with slavery in the U.S. helped change that. Reducing people to a color reduces their humanity and makes it easy to place them in a lower caste. Until reading Wilkerson, I had never stopped to think about the white indentured people in the settling of the U.S. She writes that it was easier for them to escape and assimilate in the upper caste people of European descent. Not so those with darker skin.

If Lowery wanted to advance education in Arkansas, he’d require instruction from “Caste.” We’d teach about a society that puts welfare for the affluent ahead of welfare of the neediest; about inequities in law enforcement; about the disparate impact of a global pandemic on the poor and people of color; about a founding document that counted slaves as two-thirds the value of free people and devalued women (still vastly outnumbered by white men in Arkansas’s legislature and corporate boardrooms, not to mention the pulpits of the dominant religions of Arkansas).

I’d guess Lowery would prefer, as with the uncomfortable truths of the 1619 Project, that such things not be mentioned in Arkansas classrooms.