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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Ideals good, but honesty's better

by John Brummett | June 3, 2021 at 3:06 a.m.

Republican legislators in Arkansas and several other states are riled that a new emphasis percolates by which American schools would teach that slavery was a foundational sin of our nation and that racism persists in the embedded effects of centuries of practice.

They are riled by simple education, in other words. They don't need none of that, to paraphrase Pink Floyd.

The gist of this percolating new emphasis is that there may be elements of our nation's history contributing to the simple truth that white people, speaking generally, still have lots more money and opportunity and lots less violence and illness than Black people.

It's that lifting yourself by your bootstraps actually is impossible as a physical act. Try it yourself and prepare to remain on the floor. It's that personal responsibility is a fine, indeed vital, principle. It's that equal opportunity is an essential partner of personal responsibility.

The issue is not reparations, meaning the taking of national wealth and sending it to Black people in repentance and attempted atonement. Right or wrong, and I can't say reparations would be wrong, I fear they might ignite civil war.

We're talking something much tamer. We're talking about trying to educate our kids, and ourselves, more broadly.

The issue is introspection and growth resulting from our becoming more frank about the gap between America's glorious stated ideal and its sometimes lesser reality. The premise is that discussion and introspection would serve the ideal and improve the reality.

It's that real "American exceptionalism" is not economic might or military strength, though those are excellent things. It's that national honesty in a truly free and open society is the really exceptional thing.

So, there was a Pulitzer Prize-winning package in 2019 from The New York Times called The 1619 Project. So far as anyone can tell, it has not permeated public school curricula widely if at all, though it's being designed for that purpose, subject to local school decisions, preferably by academic professionals, not Republican legislators.

But it's a mighty bugbear to conservatives ever in search of mighty bugbears. Conservatives decry that it might make innocent white children feel guilty. They say that educating them that they enjoy advantages from whiteness because of national inequity tells them America is a bad place. They say these children ought to be told that America bravely purged itself of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and embedded racist effect.

The 1619 Project presented itself with this opening statement, which I challenge you to correct factually or morally if you can: "In August of 1619, a ship appeared on this horizon, near Point Comfort, a coastal port in the English colony of Virginia. It carried more than 20 enslaved Africans, who were sold to the colonists. No aspect of the country that would be formed here has been untouched by the years of slavery that followed. On the 400th anniversary of this fateful moment it is finally time to tell our story truthfully."

Most of the specific debate about the project has been about particulars of the story it tells. Historians differ on some of those. That's fine. It's education. But declining to delve into the concept at all is willful ignorance. It's clinging to a big lie as a foundational principle and policy of our country and our schools.

Whether a New York Times journalism package should be retooled as public school curriculum ... that's a narrow and appropriate debate. I think probably not. But whether the fact of what happened in August 1619, and whether and how that event was seminal in a sad and woeful American saga, and whether American educators ought to teach that seminal moment and explore its effect ... that shouldn't be controversial in the least in a nation professing itself great.

A lot of these kids these days are smart. They can get it. They can be made better for getting it.

After 9/11, then-President George W. Bush wondered aloud why our nation's enemies don't understand how good we are.

It might be that sometimes we haven't been as good in practice as our founding principles are nobly great.

Not facing the truth about ourselves is a failure of practical goodness and a disservice to our principled greatness.

In an American public opinion survey in 2014, 84 percent of respondents said they'd rather live in America than anywhere in the world and 70 percent said America ought to acknowledge its flaws.

The majority ought to be allowed to rule. But America will need to be educated on flaws before it can acknowledge them.


John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected] Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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