I still know the Lord’s Prayer by heart, not from church attendance but from Mrs. Huff’s second grade class in Green Knoll (public) School. Every morning in 1958 included the same identity-denying routine: A mandated choral recitation and then each student taking a turn at a bible reading. I dreaded my turn. I always selected the Twenty-third Psalm because I knew it was in the Old Testament. That did not make me feel any better. It only accentuated my isolation. That is my indelible memory. I don’t remember much else about that formative year. What stuck was my inability and my lack of courage to stand up and say, "I'm a Jew, and I won't repeat that Christian prayer." The Supreme Court had yet to rule school prayer unconstitutional. Humiliation and its partner, invisibility, are what sticks.
We should all keep that in mind amidst the continuing attempts to limit what and whose history students have an opportunity to learn. Back then a bit of inclusive history for older students and their teachers would have revealed that reading the King James version of the bible in public school was wielded in the 1840s and into the 19th century as a discriminatory bludgeon against Catholic and Irish immigrants, that Catholics objected to what was viewed as imposition of Protestant observations, and raised constitutional challenges at the state level. The decades-long norm was a political choice.
It wasn’t that I had not yet learned about religious persecution in those proximate post-Holocaust years. Of that, I was keenly aware, but from my parents, not my teacher. However, I had not learned from anyone that objection to religion in public schools was contested for years. Or that standing up for myself was my right. So, I suffered in silence. Unfortunately, the norm was the majority’s obliviousness or hostility to the rights of the secular or non-Christian minority.
Jump ahead to 1977 at my mother’s retirement dinner from her accounting clerk job at Mack Trucks. It was a lovely tribute after twenty years of service, including a sweet moving speech by my father. But then there was the benediction, thanking "Our Lord Jesus Christ" for his benevolence. It was a clueless act of majoritarian denial of my mother's identity. No harm intended but delivered nonetheless. We kept our offense to ourselves, shared only within the family during the car ride home.
On June 6, 1990, the phone rang. It was my daughter’s principal. “Do you know,” she inquired, “that Channa is refusing to stand up in our graduation practice for the benediction?” Her stance, the principal inferred, was disruptive and upsetting to other students. I truly had no advance clue about my daughter’s personal protest but told the principal that I fully supported Channa. In fact, I informed her, a case (brought incidentally by a good friend) was pending before the Supreme Court. The Court eventually ruled non-sectarian religious benedictions at school-sponsored activities unconstitutional.
When we asked our daughter about it, she told us that her teacher asked her why she wasn't standing, Channa replied, "I'd don't believe in God." The teacher–who happened to be the wife of a local Lutheran minister– told her incredulously, “Oh, you just don’t believe in Jesus.” “No,” my daughter answered, “I’m a Jewish atheist.” That was a perspective the school system had not considered.
My daughter had the courage that I did not. She knew and had confidence in her Jewish and secular identity. That was not an accident. She learned about ensuring rights through struggle not in school, but from engagement in community organizing alongside her mom and dad, and from learning about history in the camp and daycare center she attended. Where my memory is the pain of humiliation and denial of my identity, hers is affirmative pride in standing up for herself. All kids need that. That behavior is a foundation block for democracy. School should ensure it. However, in state legislatures across the country Republicans are attempting to ensure that students do not learn what my daughter learned.
By my time in second grade the discriminatory rationale for school prayer had faded from popular memory. Hence, the absence of the history of school prayer in 1950s curricula might be attributed to majority’s cultural obliviousness. Nonetheless, then, as now, accepted cultural practices reinforce and protect the normality of the domination of some over others. Recall that the halls of power were dominated by Protestant white men and that the election of a Catholic president in 1960 was contested for exactly that reason.
In current classrooms, the ubiquity of inequity and the absence of systemic explanations insinuates itself into the daily lives of students as they observe wealth-based differences in clothing, homes, leisure time. The result is a feeling of superiority of some and diminishment of others. All too often, those differences are explained by systemic racism. It is just not acknowledged in what students learn in school. There is an organized effort to keep it that way.
Learning how racism shaped the United States upsets an accepted majority-affirming comfortable norm. For example, housing inequity is ever-present in the lives of school children. When history classes omit teaching about federally mandated racial covenants in post WWII VA mortgages and its role in differential wealth accumulation, it makes current inequity in housing appear to be the result of personal preference rather than intentional systemic racism, affirming some students and denying it to others.[bb1] Imposing school prayer and not teaching about it were choices. Similarly, the creation of white suburbs and its negative impact on African-Americans and not teaching about it are choices too.
The current spate of Republican-sponsored, legislation to ban teaching about the history of racism is not just faulty logic or knee-jerk majoritarian reaction. It is strategic. An inclusive study of history reveals that racism was and is integral to the empowerment of some whites at the expense of others. It exposes how the wealthy few have sown hatred and resentment among working class whites toward people of color. An inclusive history surfaces efforts to limit the power everyday people to organize with one another. It reveals has how that has undermined the struggle for rights, especially people of color. Attempts to encourage rage through purposefully divisive distortion are a transparent diversion from Republican’s otherwise unpopular economic policies and to affirm the normality of contemporary racism and inequity that enable power.
Some hear critique of such racist decisions of some whites, codified in both law and practice, as an accusation of collective personal guilt of all in the present. That interpretation is a toxic mix of unquestioned acceptance of stereotypes and the dominant ethos of personal responsibility and blame. That is the opposite of the intended focus on structural racism and inequity.
Resisters to inclusive history surely do not want students to do what my daughter did. Instead, they want to standardize my second grader acquiescence. The empowered do not want students to question the basis of their wealth and outsized influence in systemic racism. The enraged parents who show up at school board meetings to protest do not want questioning children. The attempted cover-up does not make what is hidden go away. Instead, denial reinforces its existence in daily life.
Forcing me to recite the Lord’s prayer, which I mouthed silently in vain attempt to protect my integrity, affirmed the identity of some kids and denied mine. Today, the failure to connect, the post-Reconstruction Jim Crow South, the Tulsa Massacre, and a Derrick Chauvin’s knee on a Black man’s neck, redlining of Black neighborhoods for mortgages approval, and vast contemporary wealth gaps denies the identity of some students.
The more insidious impact– and maybe the one most feared–is enabling all students to ask informed questions. The core values of anti-racist teaching are empathy and respect for the rights of all. That demands understanding, not ignoring, how social and political choices in the past impact the present. That includes examining the discriminatory history of school prayer and the struggles to end it, Black voters showing up at the polls to vote when violence was the likely result, the triumph of the Voting Right Act and current attempts to deny voting rights.
What the empowered least want is for students to know the litany of people against whom racism, xenophobia, sexism, and homophobia have been wielded to protect power. Power’s enabler has always been widespread insecurity and acceptance of inability to do anything about it. That is why Republicans have consistently opposed programs that help everyone: Social Security, Medicare, the Affordable Care Act; protecting the environment from pollution and fossil-fuel emissions, and universal PK-16 education. The universality of a precarious life enables blame. Knowing that history might engender what the powerful have always feared the most, common cause. So, the new masquerading talking point of racism's privileged defenders is to accuse those who expose past and current racism, as racist and divisive. It is all a "how dare you question or reveal!" temper tantrum.
Suffering alone and in silence should not be an option. The exposure to inclusive history is neither racist nor divisive. Denial is.
Arthur H. Camins is a lifelong educator. He writes about education and social justice. He works part-time with curriculum developers at UC Berkeley as an assessment specialist. He retired recently as Director of the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education at Stevens Institute of Technology. He has taught and been an administrator in New York City, Massachusetts, and Louisville, Kentucky. The ideas expressed in this article are his alone.
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