Commentary

New Prague racial incidents show we need more, not less teaching of racial history | Opinion

March 25, 2022 6:00 am

Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” was among more than two dozen books removed last month from a school library at Goddard, Kansas, following a challenge by a parent. The books have since been returned to the shelves. Photo by Max McCoy/Kansas Reflector.

In the early 1990s, when I was a freshman in a rural Minnesota high school, there was an incident in which fans of the visiting team yelled racial epithets at the Asian-American players on my school’s girls basketball team.

Fast-forward 30 years, and this type of racist behavior is still happening in Minnesota high schools.

Two alleged incidents involving New Prague High School recently attracted significant media attention. One during which New Prague fans yelled racist taunts at athletes of the visiting Robbinsdale Cooper girls basketball team, and another when New Prague fans made racist comments to players on the St. Louis Park boys hockey team.

These incidents indicate there is a problem in our state. As the editorial board of the Star Tribune wrote in its March 10 editorial, “…[T]hey suggest that something awful and ugly lurks in some Minnesota schools and communities.”

That awful and ugly something — and let’s just call it what it is: racism and white supremacy — needs to be directly addressed and actively opposed in the educational system in both Minnesota and around the nation. We need to strengthen and enhance curriculum on topics like racism and social injustice, hold more discussions about equity and inclusion, and work harder to foster a sense of empathy and tolerance in our students.

Meanwhile, in neighboring South Dakota, Gov. Kristi Noem recently signed into law a bill prohibiting public universities from using training that causes people to feel “discomfort” based on their race. Tennessee recently passed a law restricting classroom discussions on the topic of race, identifying 14 concepts banned as too divisive for inclusion in its educational curriculum.

Instruction that promotes a truthful consideration of our nation’s past no more causes race-hating than honest reflection on one’s personal conduct causes self-hate.

The idea of banning something — particularly at the university level — because it might cause “discomfort” is laughably absurd. That’s the whole point of education: To learn, experience, read about, and be presented with new ideas, situations and concepts that challenge us — cause “discomfort” if you will — to think critically, consider new perspectives and expand our knowledge.

As a history instructor, my job is to teach history accurately and honestly, in a way that prompts critical thinking about the issues of race and social injustice (among many other issues) and encourages open and honest conversations about equity and inclusion. To teach anything other than a national history that includes both our successes and our failures would be teaching propaganda, not history.

Educators like me who advocate for an honest and accurate history curriculum are attacked by critics as teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT). Attempts to enlighten these critics that CRT is a graduate-level legal theory that is not taught in K-12 schools fall on deaf ears. Out of malice or willful ignorance, they continue to attack teachers who strive to teach truthful history as indoctrinators of hateful ideologies. 

Another line of attack is to accuse educators of teaching curriculum that promotes race-blaming or race-hating. This accusation is also so absurd, it is laughable. Instruction that promotes a truthful consideration of our nation’s past and an open conversation about the current state of things no more causes race-hating than honest reflection on one’s personal conduct causes self-hate.

One of the seven sacraments of the Catholic Church is the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. A believer is urged to spend time in quiet reflection, considering “what I have done and what I have failed to do,” and then to seek forgiveness and reconciliation through confession. This does not result in self-hate. On the contrary, it promotes self-improvement and encourages a person to make things right and do better going forward.

Likewise, a truthful consideration of our nation’s history encourages reflection about where our country has fallen short on its professed ideals and how we the people can improve in the future. It is part of the ongoing struggle to achieve the more perfect union envisioned by the writers of the Constitution. They understood that perfection had not been already accomplished, but was a goal to be continually pursued.

In light of these recent racial incidents, it seems that efforts to limit or restrict topics and discussions about race in our schools and in our curriculum — whether that be in South Dakota, Tennessee, or here in Minnesota — are a step in the wrong direction. If we don’t talk about or reflect on “discomforting” issues, we cannot improve our conduct or come closer to achieving that more perfect union.

 Thirty years with little progress is too long.

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