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Students Don’t Need The Disney Version Of Our History

Reprinted with permission from Roll Call

The White House issued a proclamation last week, of the sort that most presidents have issued about historical events that deserve commemorating, but that were missing, for the most part, during the Trump reign.

This one marked the 60th anniversary of the first Freedom Rides, on May 4, 1961, when traveling on a bus meant risking your life, if you were with an integrated group, sitting in a spot of your choice. Those southbound heroes were willing to face beatings and the unknown at the hands of fellow citizens intent on stopping progress by any means necessary. Angry and afraid, the violent white supremacist mobs refused to acknowledge the humanity of African Americans or the validity of any law that looked forward not back.

It's the reality — and not the myth of uncomplicated greatness the country has told the world and itself for far too long.

And it's not always pretty.

For that reason, many Republicans want to "cancel" it, to use a word today's conservatives have been misusing with reckless abandon. They'd like to erase the history and the essential lessons that reveal so much about how and why America is so divided and its systems — of health care, housing, education, and more — so inequitable in 2021.

Why? Because for all the chest-thumping toughness so many Americans brag about, apparently white students are too fragile to hear the truth, or see the pictures on prized postcards that treated lynchings as entertainment for the whole family, an indictment of more than a few rogue racists.

Black students, of course, subject to disproportionate school suspensions, stereotypical assumptions from teachers, and keen scrutiny by law enforcement on their way to and from, and sometimes in, the classroom, know all too well that the problems they face stretch back 400 years and more. But the laws being passed and pushed in states across the country — no surprise — don't have them in mind.

Alternate Reality

For those making and debating these rules, in states such as Idaho, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas, creating an alternate reality, a version that resembles a Disneyfied diorama, is fine even if it is false, as long as it accommodates white feelings and gives in to white fears.

How will these laws be enforced? Government monitors? Would a fine be imposed if a teacher steps over some vague line? Well, yes, in Arizona, the penalty could be $5,000. If a curious student asks a question, will the teacher no longer be allowed to answer?

The late Rep. John Lewis, brave and persistent, who endured brutal beatings as a consequence of his civil rights activism —including his part in the Freedom Rides — would seem to be someone America's students could look up to. But I'm doubtful his march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 1965 would make it past the curriculum censors since his attackers were agents of the state, enforcing unjust laws that prevented African Americans from voting, from living a free life.

Can you imagine? Students might make a connection between those troopers and Derek Chauvin, a murderer in a uniform, and want to learn about the racist history of policing in America. Plus, calling that day "Bloody Sunday" just wouldn't do.

It's no coincidence that the defenders of a white-washed version of history are in many cases the same legislators rushing through laws that criminalize the protesters who are the spiritual sons and daughters of Lewis.

Do these arbiters of education think that if students don't learn about Jim Crow, they won't see anything shameful about "Jim Crow 2.0" laws that restrict voting rights and harken back to post-Reconstruction rules enacted to crush the progress of those who, once unshackled, achieved elective office and thrived?

It's clear from the twisted views of America's past held by many of the staunchest defenders of the anti-history movement that a more inclusive curriculum is overdue, and they should sign up for a makeup class.

Get the dunce cap ready for Martha Huckabay, president of the Women's Republican Club of New Orleans, who defended Louisiana GOP state Rep. Ray Garofalo's words on teaching about the "good" parts of enslaving men, women, and children and offered choice thoughts of her own. Huckabay opined that slavery resulted in "hard working ethics" and that "many of the slaves loved their masters, and their masters loved them, and took very good care of them, and their families." Was she talking about the torture, the rape, or the selling of children away from moms and dads?

Tennessee Republican state Rep. Justin Lafferty somehow interpreted the three-fifths compromise in the original Constitution, which counted the enslaved as three-fifths of a human being, as a step toward ending slavery.

Colorado GOP state Rep. Ron Hanks said the three-fifths compromise "was not impugning anybody's humanity" — after he made a lynching joke. His Republican colleague, state Rep. Richard Holtorf, called another colleague the racist stereotype "Buckwheat," and insisted it had nothing — nothing — to do with race.

CNN contributor Rick Santorum has tried and failed miserably to explain his comments that "we birthed a nation from nothing. I mean, there was nothing here. I mean, yes we have Native Americans, but candidly there isn't much Native American culture in American culture." Why, when he was a senator from Pennsylvania, could Santorum not be bothered to stroll to the National Museum of the American Indian? Was he too lazy or just incurious, either way not an example for school kids of any age?

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has weighed in on the debate. He seems fine with teaching the words of America's founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution. Does he want to stop there, leaving out how, when and why the country failed to live up to the lofty principles in those documents until forced to by true patriots? He has said the year 1619, when the first enslaved Africans arrived in colonial Virginia, means little to him. Considering his slave-owning ancestors benefited from trading and "owning" human beings and, presumably, passed the wealth on to family members, you'd think McConnell would be a little more "woke."

History Repeats

"The past is never dead. It's not even past," wrote William Faulkner. The depressing proof can be seen in the tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia., chanting, "Jews will not replace us!" You have to wonder if avowed neo-Nazi James Fields Jr., serving life in prison for the killing of Heather Heyer, would even be charged under new laws that give a pass and winking approval to drivers who mow down protesters blocking a roadway?

Just months ago, on January 6, violent, hate-filled mobs — cousins in crime to those who greeted the Freedom Riders — stormed the U.S. Capitol, attacking police with the same weapons of batons and bats, hoisting Confederate flags, erecting gallows, hunting for lawmakers and endangering democracy itself.

South Carolina, where Lewis was viciously attacked and left in a pool of blood at the Rock Hill stop of the original Freedom Rides, on Monday officially observed Confederate Memorial Day, honoring traitors who fought to split a nation over the issue of slavery.

This Monday.

How will the next generations do better if they are forbidden from learning the history they must not repeat?

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

This Whiteness Of Being

It's Wednesday morning. I sign into the eighth one-on-one student videoconference but immediately see that, on this call, with this cherished student, there's no oxygen for talking about the final, mundane details of spring semester. The young Black woman looking at me through the computer screen is in almost unspeakable pain.

We are meeting less than 24 hours after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted on all counts for the murder last May of George Floyd. Chauvin knelt on Floyd's neck for more than nine minutes. I always try to remember to include that because, in my experience, young people can't forget it, and neither should we. It's the very least we can do for Floyd and for Darnella Frazier, the brave 17-year-old Black girl who held up her phone that day and bore witness to the last minutes of his life. It's hard for me to believe a person can watch even part of her ten-minute video and not feel something break inside.

The Chauvin verdict is an accountability, but it is not justice, my student says, and I agree. Justice would mean George Floyd was still alive and able to hold his 6-year-old daughter Gianna in his arms.

But this Wednesday morning is worse, so much worse, because minutes before the Chauvin verdict was announced, a 16-year-old Black girl named Ma'Khia Bryant was shot and killed in the street by a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio. An investigation is pending, but surely, I don't have to tell you how that sounds to my student less than 24 hours later.

It's too much on top of more than one can bear. My student, this talented and spirited young woman who has been such a fierce presence in my class, has no energy left to talk about what's due by the end of the semester. She is the first of several Black women, current and former students, who tell me that day, without hesitation or doubt, "That girl could be me."

I am a white woman who has never had a minute's worry that the color of my skin would lead to the cause of my death. What is my role in this moment as a professor, a colleague, a friend?

I try to take guidance from Black friends, students and colleagues. The instruction is pretty simple: Shut up. For the sake of all that is right and holy, just shut up for a while and listen. To ignore their pain is to magnify our indifference, and filling this space with our words, our feelings, is just another way to say, "I don't see you."

If your daily life includes no Black friends, colleagues or neighbors, it is by choice. You can argue your "very good reasons" all you want. No one believes you, even if they like you. Try explaining, for example, how your all-white neighborhood reflects your commitment to racial equality. I speak from shameful experience. When you don't want to tell people where you live, it's time to move.

There is one space in which white Americans should always be outspoken allies of Black people, and that is in the company of other white people. So often, our most uncomfortable moments are the most important ones.

For all of my 19 years as a columnist, there has been no rival for the hate mail about racism from people who look like me. The message, sometimes cloaked in Scripture but often just raw with rage, is always the same: You have betrayed your people.

If your primary requirement for love or camaraderie with another human being is a matching skin tone, your world is but a thimble bobbing on a wondrous sea. My mother would want me to pray for you, just as many of you claim to be praying for me. She'd want me to mean it, though, so I keep trying.

It's Thursday evening now, and my mind is full of the thoughts my students have bravely shared in this sad week of never-ending pain. I am slowed by the weight of their words, struggling to imagine what it is like to be them right now.

I do not know because I cannot know, in this whiteness of being. But for them, I will keep trying.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University's school of journalism. She is the author of two non-fiction books, including "...and His Lovely Wife," which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. She is also the author of The New York Times bestselling novel, The Daughters of Erietown. To find out more about Connie Schultz (schultz.connie@gmail.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com

One Black Life Mattered, This Time

Reprinted with permission from Roll Call

Remember when three Black women proclaimed that Black Lives Matter? It was in 2013 after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the fatal shooting of unarmed Black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. It seemed so essential and overdue for Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to found a movement to defiantly claim what America had too often denied.

Yet it was controversial. The willfully blind countered with "All Lives Matter," as though saying that would make it so. Then, there were suggestions: "Don't you think it would be less divisive if the signs read 'Black Lives Matter, Too?'"

In all honesty, anyone who did not get it was not going to with the addition of one three-letter word. But then the world witnessed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin press his knee on the neck of George Floyd for nine minutes and 29 seconds. That the doubters needed video evidence was infuriating, when Black and brown Americans had been bearing witness for hundreds of years. But communities craving visibility and justice welcomed the opened eyes and protests by all ages and races.

It was certainly never a sure thing that Chauvin would be found guilty on all murder and manslaughter charges, as he was. There was also video of the killings of Philando Castile in Minnesota in 2016 and Walter Scott in South Carolina in 2015. Yet in Castile's case, police officer Jeronimo Yanez was found not guilty. And in Scott's case, after the first prosecution ended in a hung jury, it took a federal prosecution to gain a plea from former police officer Michael Slager — despite the evidence a brave citizen recorded of Slager shooting Scott in the back, taking aim while standing 15 to 20 feet away, and then throwing his Taser down to concoct a false story for his department to swallow and regurgitate as truth. (Another bit of mild relief this week as Slager's 20-year sentence was upheld.)

No wonder so many were holding our collective breath.

Unique Circumstances

It took the shock and trauma of Floyd's torture and murder in broad daylight, the look on the face of a white police officer showing the crowd that he was in charge, and a prosecution that cared enough to put in the work to get a conviction. The defense lawyer's characterization of Floyd as at once superhuman, able to rise up after he stopped breathing, yet so weak he literally dropped dead from preexisting conditions, and the crowd as frightening when they were the ones helplessly pleading with Chauvin, the man with the gun and the mace, fell flat this time.

In a startling change, police testified against one of their own, as if to say, it's him, not us. An acquittal for Chauvin would have truly proved police can get away with anything.

But the marches and protests will continue because it is about more than one trial and one officer. The case of Daunte Wright, shot and killed during what started as a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, as the Chauvin trial was going on, was a reminder of that. And at those Black Lives Matter marches, a militarized presence by police contrasted with their light hand when confronted by anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, and insurrectionists anxious to overturn the results of a free and fair election.

Peaceful civil rights activists now praised as secular saints by liberals and conservatives alike — a litany that includes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer — were once met with state-sanctioned violence. Some scenes in the present, at protests for justice, resemble the images from then, with tear gas lingering in the air and snipers on roofs.

Changes Afoot

It's true the Biden administration's Department of Justice seems to be taking that word "justice" seriously. Attorney General Merrick Garland is rescinding the ban on consent decrees that monitored local police departments, agreements President Donald Trump and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions deemed an infringement. Just this week, Garland announced a Justice Department probe into the practices and culture of the Minneapolis Police Department.

In my home state of Maryland, the Democratic-controlled legislature overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill that repealed the state's powerful Law Enforcement Officers' Bill of Rights. Now Maryland has established new use-of-force rules, among other provisions on investigations and punishment, and civilians can weigh in.

Yet, in Florida, in what can only be described as a retreat to the bad old days, Gov. Ron DeSantis has signed a bill brazenly targeting racial justice protesters that punishes protest itself with felony charges. At the signing, Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd warned newcomers to the state: "Don't register to vote and vote the stupid way they did up north and get what they got."

Ah, Florida. Come for the voter suppression, get arrested at a protest as a bonus.

Even after Chauvin's conviction, there does not seem to be much enthusiasm from Senate Republicans for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, though polls suggest public support for provisions such as bans on chokeholds, limits on no-knock warrants, and data collection that would prevent bad police officers from moving to different jurisdictions without leaving a trail.

Anyone who was paying attention knows that Chauvin was one ten-minute video taken by a stalwart 17-year-old away from returning to his beat, charged up on new resentments.

A Black life may have mattered, this time. But many of us have yet to exhale.

Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer, as national correspondent for Politics Daily, and is a senior facilitator with The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

Let's End Police Traffic Stops That Bring Needless Tragedy

Driving has gotten much less dangerous over time, thanks to new safety features in cars, better highway design and a decline in drunk driving. But that's no solace to motorists who face dangers of a different kind — not when they are driving, but when they are stopped on the side of the road.

Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old African American, was fatally shot by a police officer in Minnesota after being pulled over for an expired license tag. In Virginia, Caron Nazario, a Black and Latino Army officer, was pepper-sprayed after being stopped for lacking a rear license plate — though a temporary plate was affixed to his rear window.

Jenoah Donald, a 30-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by a Kentucky sheriff's deputy who had pulled him over for a broken taillight. And it's impossible to forget Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old African American, who died in 2015 in a Texas jail after being stopped for failing to signal — and was arrested for refusing to put out her cigarette.

A lot of factors figure in these deadly incidents. Police commonly have a tendency to target Black and Hispanic drivers for minor traffic offenses, and some cops are overly aggressive or inept in dealing with these motorists. Curing such failings has proven to be a difficult task.

But one solution is hiding in plain sight. None of the violence visited upon people during police traffic stops would have occurred if there had been no police traffic stop. Instead of focusing entirely on restraining cops in these situations, we should try to keep them out of these situations.

Life was different until vehicular infractions became the province of police officers. "Before the 20th century, the average American seldom came under police scrutiny," writes Columbia law professor Sarah Seo, author of Policing the Open Road: How Cars Transformed American Freedom. "Ironically, the rise of the automobile — that embodiment of personal freedom — vastly expanded the police's powers over everybody who drove or rode in a car." Cops pull over 50,000 cars every day, 20 million per year.

Someone has to take responsibility for administering traffic laws. But there is no compelling reason for armed police to confront individuals over petty errors and trivial transgressions. It creates unnecessary hazards for cops and for those they stop.

It also invites discrimination. Various studies indicate that cops are more likely to stop Black and Hispanic drivers than white ones and more likely to search their cars — even though they are more likely to find contraband with white drivers.

In a 2013 Gallup Poll, 24% of Black men aged 18 to 34 said they had been unfairly treated by police in the last 30 days. The New York Times reported that Philando Castile, who was shot to death by a cop in Minnesota in 2016, was pulled over 49 times in 13 years — typically for minor infractions.

Contrary to myth, traffic enforcement is not a good method of catching crooks and curbing crime. In Chicago, these stops yield contraband in only 1 in 555 cases.

A 2018 study of Nashville, Tennessee, by the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law found: "Traffic stops do not appear to have a significant impact on long-term crime trends. As the number of traffic stops declined between 2012 and 2017, crime rates remained quite flat." And, "Traffic stops also do not appear to have any effect on crime in the short-term."

Unpleasant experiences breed distrust and hostility toward cops among African Americans and Hispanics. The simplest way to prevent such incidents is to remove police from the picture whenever possible.

New York Attorney General Letitia James recently proposed that New York City police cease making routine traffic stops. "Armed police officers are not needed for traffic enforcement," her report concluded, "particularly when the underlying conduct in question is not criminal, such as a broken taillight, speeding, or not wearing a seatbelt."

More use of speed and red-light cameras could greatly reduce the incidence of police-driver encounters, while promoting road safety. Unarmed traffic monitors could document minor violations by photo or video and mail citations to offenders; they could also make stops when necessary. Cops could be reserved for instances of dangerous driving.

In every traffic stop, the driver and the police officer face the risk of being killed, and too often, the risk becomes a reality. Why not take both out of the line of fire?

Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.