Schooling Congressman Palmer
(Look at the beautiful array of neighborhoods on this DC map! Look at how small Capitol Hill is, surrounded by lovely, vibrant, productive neighborhoods! Maybe congresspeople from outside of our city should visit some neighborhoods they’ve never been to before speaking in racist, disparaging terms about our city!)
There’s a shameful, ignorant movement abroad in the land to deny schoolchildren access to library books and curricula that might teach the truth of America’s tortured history on the topic of race. Governors and state legislators are working in overdrive to ban lessons on slavery, systemic racism, white supremacy, diversity, equity, inclusion and related topics. 1619 Project? Heck NO! Purge the books from the library and threaten the teachers with summary firing if they dare venture onto truth-telling about America’s Original Sin. The children need to learn to revere the Founding Fathers in all their starchy tricorne poses; no need to bother the little ones with the facts about how many slaves each one owned, and how the economics of slavery figured into their calculations about making war with Mother England and then constructing a new nation thereafter.
But the children are very smart, and, deprived of books and curricula, they will still learn the facts about America’s Original Sin of Racism because the facts splash themselves across our screens every single day. No need to bother the kids with arcane explanations of the Three-Fifths Compromise! Instead, let the children watch Congressional hearings in which supposedly Modern Men who think they are working in the shadow of the Founding Fathers bleat out the most contemptible racist tropes.
Yes, that’s right, Congressman Gary Palmer (R-AL) trashed the D.C. Schools and D.C. students in a truly despicable manner, using a phrase that is deeply racist, implying that many if not most D.C. students are criminals. Why would a member of Congress stoop so low as to insult every single student, teacher and parent associated with the D.C. Schools? This is no sloppy turn-of-a-phrase, it is something that we might guess Palmer and his ilk say in private all the time in reference to a school system that is predominantly Black.
Children know what the adults are saying, and this kind of racist insult is deeply hurtful and harmful. But it also illustrates all of the reasons why we must continue to teach the children about the racist dimensions of U.S. History, because the racism is not some past failing, but rather, a contemporary scandal that our children today must learn to deal with effectively so that it does not overwhelm their hopes and ambitions. We know these children at Trinity; they are our students, too. They have large dreams. They are very smart and ambitious. They want to change their lives, improve the circumstances of their children and families. Their potential for our city and our nation is enormous. But the disparagement of the casual racist taunt, the discouragement of the continuing climate for racial hatred, the prejudice and discrimination that boils over in all the shameful rhetoric can have the effect of limiting the horizons of the young, poisoning eager hearts with bitter cynicism before the potential can be fully realized. Hope dissipates. Racism thwarts, demeans, stifles and smothers the once-high aspirations. That’s reality; that’s the consequence of irresponsible, despicable comments like Congressman Palmer’s.
The racist history of the United States never went away; the elements of white supremacy continued to burn like embers left untended on the campfires after the Civil War. Lincoln may have signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, the Supreme Court may have finally ruled against “separate but equal” in 1954, Lyndon Johnson might have signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but the racial hatred did not go away. Purging this nation of its racist tendencies is a sisyphean struggle, with some years of progress and many years of devolution.
Congressman Palmer’s attack on the D.C. Public Schools came during a hearing that is an even larger example of the racial sickness that still grips too many Americans. Congressional Republicans called the hearing to disparage and berate some D.C. officials for the recent legislative effort to modernize the D.C. Criminal Code. The D.C. bill became an excuse for members of Congress to exercise an extraordinary veto over the self-determination rights of D.C. citizens. D.C. is a majority minority city, with a Black population that is about 45% this year. Right-wing politicians have set their sights on rolling back the relatively limited Home Rule that D.C. citizens achieved in 1974. The deliberate disenfranchisement of D.C. citizens is another example of the racial insult that keeps coming back decades after we thought the battle was over. (See my recent blog on The Last Colony)
Members of Congress should be attending to the needs of their own constituents. By all reports, the Alabama schools might need some attention, Congressman Palmer! But we won’t disparage Alabama’s students or teachers by using racist tropes to describe them. All of us who do the heavy lifting in education know that there are many challenges as well as beautiful success stories. We educators don’t claim that every day is all good; some days are actually very stressful. But we have chosen to devote our lives, our intellects and our best talents to helping the children to learn as much as possible so they, too, can educate and elevate future generations. ALL children need encouragement and incentive to keep learning and growing. NO children should be subjected to racist, bigoted, disparaging labels spoken by ignorant people in power.
Oh, and, Congressman Palmer? We can provide some Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training for you if you’d like to work on your tendency to blurt out racist phrases …. let me know!