By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.
Want to be accused of divisiveness? Try discussing racial issues.
I write a weekly social-political column for the Poughkeepsie Journal (a USA Today Network newspaper) and know how the mere mention of race triggers emotions in readers that feed the stark either-or mindset of our politics. A prime example of that kind of thinking: the raging battle over what kids are taught about America’s troubled racial history and its current condition.
Critical Race Theory (CRT), which posits that racism is embedded in America’s legal and economic systems is taught only at some law schools and colleges, but even mild efforts to promote understanding in grade schools are now being mistaken for CRT.
Racial topics automatically alarm and anger parents fueled by politicians and commentators who aren’t helping anyone view the subject with clear eyes. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, who has more than four million viewers, irresponsibly admitted on the air last week that “I’ve never figured out what Critical Race Theory is, to be totally honest, after a year of talking about it,” adding that it probably teaches that one race (whites) is “evil” and another (Blacks) is “saintly.”
To make matters worse, the Republican Party reportedly plans to make CRT a central issue in the 2022 midterm elections. GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin raised the specter of CRT earlier this month in his successful campaign in Virginia.
Hundreds of books, including Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about slavery Beloved and Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give are being scrutinized by school boards and lawmakers across the country as passions rise. In September, the National School Board Association sparked an uproar on the right when it asked the Justice Department for protection against threats from parents directed at members and teachers.
In October, two acclaimed graphic novels were targeted in Katy, Tex. New Kid (which won the Newbery Medal, the Coretta Scott King Author Award, and the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers’ Literature) and its sequel Class Act are about Black kids struggling to fit into a predominantly white, upper-class private school that has varied but small minorities.
A parent claiming the books teach CRT and even Marxism campaigned to get them removed from her school district. They were, and author Jerry Craft’s scheduled talk with fourth- and fifth-graders was postponed … until the district reviewed the novels and restored them. Jerry then gave his planned talk: about how as a kid he was inspired by comic books to become a cartoonist.
A friend and former colleague of mine, Jerry handled the incident with classy calm and was gratified when a counter-campaign by parents raised money to buy 100 copies of each book for local libraries and teachers.
Unfortunately, portrayals of race are a Rorschach Test. Yes, in Jerry’s novels there is mild conflict between a white kid and Black protagonist Jordan Banks and his friend Drew, but no racial slurs or real violence. Some white teachers are awkwardly “woke” in a condescending way that undermines their best intentions, but innocent gestures — such as a white girl giving Drew a gift certificate for Kentucky Fried Chicken — are misinterpreted by kids of different races.
“I got you a KFC gift certificate because, who doesn’t love KFC, right?” the girl says.
Meanwhile, a lonely white boy from a wealthy family befriends Jordan and Drew, who help an eccentric, outcast white girl feel better about herself. A white art teacher recognizes Jordan’s talent and makes one of his paintings the cover of the school yearbook. A traffic stop makes Jordan’s dad extremely anxious, but the white cop turns out to be playfully friendly.
Marxism? Class and wealth divides surely exist in America and are central themes in the books, but one Black character’s father is the CEO of a big corporation. There are kids’ questions about why some schools have few resources and others have everything, but Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto these novels are not.
I worked with Jerry Craft for seven years at Sports Illustrated for Kids, where he created wonderful material with positive lessons. He recently told me he didn’t know what CRT was when he wrote New Kid and Class Act. He just wanted to fill a need for more books about Black kids that aren't merely ghetto survival tales. His are serious yet funny, semi-autobiographical, based on his sons’ experiences, and a realistic picture of our society.
Unsettling truths in the books— Black kids reflexively assumed to be from broken homes, suspected of being shoplifters or given things solely because of their race and more easily accepted if their skin is light, Hispanic kids presumed to be Mexican — will make some readers uncomfortable, but discomfort can be necessary for reflection and change.
What Are We Really Saying?
The message I’ve long heard from many whites is that Blacks have been whining long enough, they should be content with what they’ve gained in the last 60 years, and we all get along until they complain.
As a white man, I don’t believe I have the right or ability to speak for minorities. I don’t know what it’s really like to be one of them because I can’t live their reality. “As a man, I don’t know what it’s really like to be a woman and deal with sexism,” Jerry told me during our recent conversation.
I grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s in the nearly all-white, upper-middle-class town of Garden City, Long Island. Blacks were routinely stopped by police when they drove or walked through town. My friends and I feared Black kids because we thought they would attack us.
Turns out, in my 64 years I’ve never been assaulted or the target of a slur by anyone of another race, but I see how fear of minorities persists. Neighbors and co-workers have said things to me like “your kids should have children as soon as possible because America needs more whites before minorities take over and ruin the country.”
While growing up, I was taught a simplistic “George Washington never told a lie” version of American history that underplayed the horrific tragedies of slavery, lynching, and segregation, not to mention the fate of Native Americans, the backlash against immigrants, and anti-Semitism. Not that I particularly cared. I was too focused on my own world and assumed “Indians” were evil savages and the North welcomed freed Blacks who were probably just lazy and prone to crime. A grade school friend who attended a Catholic school told me back then that he was taught that Jews have horns and tails.
Those were the days many people now seem to long for, when supposedly you didn’t have to watch what you said about or to anyone. My friends and I trafficked in dumb ethnic jokes. I was called “N-word lips” because my lips were full.
My parents weren’t overt in their racism, but they did look down on Blacks and Jews. An uncle by marriage was a raging bigot from Tennessee who flew into tirades when he saw Blacks on the street. I can’t recall the first time I ever really got to know a person of color. It may not have been until I started my professional career in journalism in the early ‘80s. But even as a kid I sensed something was profoundly wrong and unfair about what I was hearing from the people around me.
What really bothers me now is how many Americans are responding to racial issues by using equivalence — other countries had slavery, Blacks in Africa sold each other into it, non-whites are racist and violent, too — to deflect and diminish what our white-dominated society has been doing for centuries. The Black Lives Matter movement was quickly branded as Communist and sneeringly dismissed with “Cold Beer Matters” lawn signs I see in the area where I live. Thoughtful and necessary reform of policing (which helps good cops) was buried in a landslide of misinformation and partisan rhetoric.
The now all-too-common “two wrongs make a right” argument cites rioting in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Blacks as justification for the January 6 attack on the Capitol. One of Donald Trump’s lawyers used it as a defense during Trump’s second impeachment.
We Need To Talk
Talking about all of this and achieving genuine understanding and change is difficult. As it is, people hate admitting mistakes or apologizing, and react as if they are guilty even when they aren’t. When I write columns about tolerance, diversity and acceptance, and people who are working to achieve such things, they and I are cynically accused of mere virtue signaling and scolding conservatives.
When I hear that topics like slavery should be downplayed in schools because they make white kids feel bad, I wonder how many whites who say this even considered the feelings of Blacks who have to look at Confederate flags and statues of Confederate generals, or enter school buildings named after people who fought to deny them their rights. It’s bitterly ironic that “F--- Your Feelings” is a rallying slogan for Trump supporters.
So now we have candidates across the country running for office on platforms that will again sanitize our knowledge and understanding of racism and its effects by stifling honest and detailed discussion.
Relationship problems can’t be solved by avoiding them. When a loved one’s behavior is causing harm, you confront them because you love them and want them to be the best they can be. Your first exchanges will likely be angry and painful, but healing starts when a wound is cleaned and dressed. It’s not the talk that is divisive, it’s the behavior that made the talk necessary.
Societies are really just human relationships writ large. The main message of New Kid and Class Act — everyone wants to be accepted and appreciated for who they really are — surely resonates with all kids in their natural quest to fit in.
I agree with Jerry Craft, who said in an interview with NBC’s Click2Houston.com, “I think we still believe in the whole melting pot idea, where everyone gets melted down and reshaped into the same kid. I once heard someone use the idea of a salad, where lettuce gets to be lettuce, and the same for cucumbers, carrots … but together they make something wonderful while still maintaining their own identity.”
New Kid and Class Act are also helpful for teaching kids to question the assumptions everyone makes about people. Kids are not likely to be taught honest, nuanced lessons about race solely at home when our society is so full of insulated political bubbles with narrow views. Stereotypes and assumptions will only persist without exposure to varied viewpoints born of experiences.
Those who bristle at the phrase “white privilege” should read Evan Osnos’ new book Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury or Born a Crime, Trevor Noah’s autobiography of growing up under apartheid in South Africa. Both are vivid looks at the challenges and often dire consequences of being deprived of resources and opportunities in daily life. Imagine having to go to an academically deficient, violent school because your parents can’t afford the daily fares to a better, safer one, or if public transportation to that better school does not even exist in your area.
As Noah writes, we are all told that if you give a man a fish he will eat for a day, but if you teach him to fish he will eat for a lifetime. “But what if he has no way of getting a fishing pole?” Noah asks.
Kids need to learn to understand why America is still so full of racial tension and how we can defuse it. Our country shed institutions like slavery and segregation, but more must be done by the individuals who make up our systems, which are run by people. Racists such as a cop like Derek Chauvin, or judges who sentence people of color to disproportionately harsh prison terms, or lenders who deny minorities business loans or steer them into predatory mortgages on houses in economically depressed areas can have a tremendous ripple effect.
The fact that something is being taught is not the key matter. It is HOW it is taught. Teaching difficult, disturbing but important subjects deserves care and thoughtful, civil discussion between teachers and parents, not over-simplified soundbites and politically expedient generalizations. Yet there is danger in giving equal weight to all sides.
In Texas, where a new law requires teachers to present multiple views on racism, an administrator in the Carroll Independent School District caused an outcry by asking teachers for material on the other side to the Holocaust. Why? To argue there are merits to genocide? Those who deny that something like the Holocaust could never occur haven’t been paying attention to mankind’s history.
Holocaust education is mandatory for kids in Germany and other countries that collaborated with the Nazis. It hasn’t been an easy process but Germans examine and learn to understand their worst behavior and why it happened without hating their country or each other.
Some readers of my column accuse me of wokeness and hating America. I’m just disappointed, saddened and angered that we’ve often failed so miserably to live up to our highest ideals. I just don’t see how denying someone’s reality and perspective with kneejerk reactions and blanket legislation will help America achieve them.
John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website Celestialchuckle.com (https://celestialchuckle.com) with the meter running.