It was one week after the announcement that the white cop who killed an unarmed black teen in Ferguson, Missouri would not be charged, and President Obama was speaking about the "simmering distrust" between African-American communities and their police forces. At the same time, the State Board of Education met in Raleigh to consider changes in the way Advanced Placement U.S. History courses should be taught in high school.
Multiple choice now. In the wake of Ferguson, do you think that the board:
a) Wants more emphasis placed, in this senior-level course, on the black experience in America?
b) Will recommend that the history of white violence against blacks, including by police, be studied?
c) Will recommend that students read original-source documents illustrating the different reactions of white and black leaders in American history to issues of race and violence?
d) Wants AP U.S. History to help students, black, brown and white, understand the racial divisions in America today?
e) Discussed none of the above. Racism? What racism?
The answer, tragically, is (e).
Really, it was pathetic. Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey looked embarrassed, and I trust he was. Because the meeting Monday wasn't about Ferguson, or black-white history, or students learning more about why the United States is the way it is—all worthy subjects at this painful time when our thoughts should be on what blacks have endured in America.
Rather, it was a soapbox for Republicans to complain that pending changes to the AP history course—changes proposed by the College Board, which administers it—seem not to celebrate white America enough.
Or not enough for Republicans like Lt. Gov. Dan Forest, a tea-party favorite who, in his role as a member of the board of education, suggested the topic.
Thus the board, in this special session, listened passively as one Larry Krieger, at Forest's behest, crackled over a conference-call hookup about the marvels of the Mayflower Compact, the Federalist Papers and other documents written when only white men mattered.
Krieger is convinced that the College Board wants these founding texts relegated to the lower shelves, along with any concept of America's goodness or "exceptionalism." Why? So it can "push AP history as far to the left as is possible in a high school course," he argued.
A College Board official said Krieger was wrong, and it's up to each teacher to decide which facts to present or documents to use.
But Krieger was born and raised in North Carolina, which led to one low moment in the farce, when Krieger said his father hailed from Morganton, home of the late U.S. Sen. Sam Ervin. The College Board, Krieger huffed, holds a "latitudinarian view" of American history—too "flexible"—whereas Sen. Sam was "a strict constructionist" who carried the Constitution in his pocket.
Well, yes, Ervin—hero of Watergate—was a strict constructionist when it came to the Constitution and race. That's why he supported segregation and thought the Supreme Court lacked the power to strike it down.
Another low moment followed when James Ford, a Charlotte history teacher and the N.C. Teacher of the Year, asked why Krieger objected to the College Board listing "white superiority" and the subjugation of African-Americans and Native Americans as topics that should be covered in AP history. Ford is African-American. "You think they did not play a key role in the formation of America?" he asked.
Krieger's answer: "Rigid racial hierarchy and white supremacy are presented as facts, they are not presented as nuanced statements" in the suggested course framework.
Slavery? Jim Crow? Nuanced? I laughed. But it wasn't funny.
Without rehashing Ferguson, it's apparent that whites in this country view events there through a different lens than blacks do. Blacks see yet another injustice in a 300-year long history. Whites—not all, but a majority—hear blacks cry injustice and their reaction is, there they go again. The kid robbed a store, didn't he?
I'll second what Tim Wise, an activist and writer on race issues wrote for Alternet—and Wise is white. Our racial history, Wise said, is like a giant inkblot and episodes like Ferguson are a Rorschach test. "That so much of white America cannot see the shapes made out so clearly by most of black America ... is a socially constructed astigmatism that blinds so many to the way in which black folks often experience law enforcement."
I would add that it also blinds whites to the way our economic inequality, disparate wealth, income and poverty rates, and for that matter every important political and social problem all spring, in major part, from the same racist history. We whites have a blind spot when it comes to seeing our own privilege.
Could that be because white students spend too much time loving the Mayflower Compact and not enough studying how the promises of liberty that whites made to one another didn't apply to their slaves?
Ford made the point eloquently. Teaching history isn't about partisanship or left and right. It's about facts and right and wrong.
So put the facts about America and our history—our real history, good and bad—in front of students and let them decide how exceptional we are.
Do that, and we have a fighting chance to bridge our raging racial divide. Indeed, I think coming to grips with history is our only chance to do so.
But don't expect the Republicans to agree. They're white, after all, and whites have done quite well in America, thank you very much.
This article appeared in print with the headline "America's race problem"