There can be no debate about the brutality that led to the death of 29-year-old Tyre Nichols as he was trying to get home. Pulled over for a traffic violation, he was dragged from his car, assaulted, chased down, and brutally beaten by thugs disguised as police officers. And afterward, as they got their stories straight and hydrated, he lay on the ground at their feet moaning in pain. No one gave him water. No one tried to help him. No one.
Ironically, just a short drive away, there is a historic building that marks the place Dr. Martin Luther King was shot dead for standing up for the rights of Tyre and so many before him. No matter how desensitized we become to the George Floyds, Daunte Wrights, Michael Browns, Tamir Rices… the list goes on… no matter how hard we struggle to comprehend it, the depravity both defines and confines us.
As I watched the bodycam footage of what looks more like gang violence than policing, I thought about the “few bad apples” argument, the popular refrain after every adrenaline-pumped demonstration of abuse of power by people with a badge. I thought about the conversations I’ve had in the past with people who have minimized another death suggesting I don’t understand what it’s like to be a cop. That’s right; I have never been a cop.
But I have worked extensively with youth as a coach, a teacher, an advocate, and a mentor. People aren’t born with the kind of depraved indifference we’ve witnessed over and over again; they are taught that. As I reflect upon the young people I’ve worked with and the challenges they face, I wonder what they learn from our apathy to the discrimination and injustices of black and brown folks. I wonder how they reconcile policies that ostracize and marginalize LGBTQ people with our proclaimed tenets of democracy and respect for diversity.
I think about the right-wing advocacy groups leading the charge to ban books on gender, race, and sexuality themes. Books like “Stamped (For Kids): Racism, Antiracism, and You” (a history of racism in the US by the Black authors Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi) and “Between the World and Me” (a semi-autobiographical work about racism in America) are being banned and challenged for removal from library shelves simply because of an ideological disagreement with the viewpoints they express, or disapproval of the life experiences they describe. Even “Gone with the Wind” has been banned from English classrooms in this country for references to slavery and offensive language.
Many conservatives believe that diverse perspectives, any recognition of marginalized communities, or experiences that run counter to their own have no place in education or society.
Here in Florida, Governor DeSantis has been very clear: Instructional materials that acknowledge the troubled history of civil and human rights will be criminalized. Every book in every classroom is to be reviewed following the guidelines sanctioned by the state (heavily influenced by right-wing groups like Moms For Liberty).
Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic concept taught mostly to law students, has become the catch-all phrase of those seeking to censor educational discussions dealing with race or racial justice in American schools. From the deeply concerning legislation barring the accurate teaching of our country’s history to sweeping book bans, this is a special kind of tragedy.
Florida educators who fail to appropriately police the books on their shelves could now face felony charges.
In essence, we are witnessing in real time the elimination of significant portions of our history. At the same time, we are rewriting what children are taught to believe about this country and what truly makes America “the city upon a hill,” exceptionalism as a beacon of hope for the world.
DeSantis and his conservative following would be the first to tell you that government overreach isn’t about reducing police and military spending but rather the infringement upon citizens’ constitutional right to live as they please – especially as it relates to family values and education. That is, unless those values are different from theirs. In that case, reach away.
Ironically, the same people are perpetuating the largest governmental overreach in education since the enforcement of segregation. It’s especially hard to wrap your head around that, fundamentally, the crusade is to ban education about racism.
And yet… we can’t seem to figure out the surge in white supremacy groups, the rise in antisemitism, and the continuing racial injustice resulting in more and more Black people being killed by police (just to name a few).
I don’t believe that these men from Memphis or so many that precede them in police brutality would have been better police officers had they read more books. I do believe that the next generation of children who grow up in our shadow will be influenced by the values of this generation and the attitudes we have about basic human rights and the people who have died while waiting for “progress.”
We can dismiss our nation’s troubled history and continue to ignore the injustices, discrimination, and challenges that our marginalized communities face. Or we can show our children what it looks like to learn from the past and grow into humans who embrace diversity and respect fellow humans – regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or political party.
History – whether we choose to learn from it or repeat it – holds the badge.
Thank you, Melissa and “Yours Truly” for the measured conversation.
“Is that not in itself another sad byproduct in this American race narrative – being painted with a generic, wide paintbrush?” It depends on who is holding the brush and what paint they’re using, yes? I don’t think that has to be our story. I taught U.S. History in the 70s, and while I covered what happened to Indigenous people, anti-immigration policies, the internment of second-generation Japanese Americans during World War II, and incidents of anti-semitism, I also stressed the promise of America. We’re a nation of innovators and rich cultures. In fact, the book I used and developed the curriculum for was called “Promise of America.” We’ve historically been a nation that aspires to beautiful principles but often struggles to get there. We’re human! There may not be a better example than the segregation policies of our military during World War II. There, we were fighting against the worst forms of hatred and racism overseas, and yet we still promoted and tolerated segregation in our own ranks. Blacks and Asians could fight, just not alongside their white counterparts.
Our nation’s history NEVER made me feel guilty as a white American. Not being allowed to help tell our complex story of hope, struggle, and progress would have. We’re not perfect as a nation, and that can be a powerful story. We do our kids and the future of our nation a terrible disservice when we restrict what they can learn and how they can think. How can we improve how we treat one another if we shield youth from what historically has pulled us apart?
Thank you, Jeff, for sharing this valuable perspective and rich analogies. The education piece of this issue hurts me as a former teacher and as a citizen watching kids grow up and hoping they will do better. How can they do better and not repeat the errors of the past if they don’t get an accurate education of the past? Like you, I am hopeful that conversations like these will move the needle even just a little bit. Being able to share (give and receive) opinions, questions, beliefs, and values without vitriol is certainly a great way to start.
Melissa Hughes… Fair enough. The last thing I want to do is be a big mouth or a know-it-all. You have many valid and educated points, and I apologize if my response was abrasive in any way. We are both passionate from different angles and it proves that we all have a lot more work to do in understanding across the aisle. I will try harder on my end to consider the important points you’ve so eloquently expressed. As a conservative – not necessarily a Republican – I don’t believe everything the right does is morally or spiritually sound. In fact, I’d like to vote a majority of them out of office and start over with fresh voices. On that note… I’ll bookmark my thoughts there and say thank you for the spirited discussion. Until next time… 🙏
In this exchange, you’ve been neither a big mouth or a know-it-all. And there is no reason for an apology as you expressed your views as respectfully as I tried to express mine. You’ve actually given me hope and I think the world could use more conversations like this. Speaking only for myself, it’s easier for me to temper my passion with an open mind when I am sharing views with a passionate person who also has an open mind. Thank you for that. I’d welcome the opportunity to continue this conversation with a few other (equally as respectful) passionate people. As you say, that is the only way we make progress. Thank you.
I find this article of extraordinary interest and relevance.
Obviously I cannot express judgments on what is happening in a country other than mine, but I want to remind that the issue of diversity is alive, perhaps at different levels, in many countries, including my own.
As stated by the laws of the Universal Declaration of Human and Citizen Rights, human beings are all equal, that is, they all have the same rights, the right to life, health, respect, the freedom to fulfill themselves according to their desires, the right to express their opinions, to choose their religion. Therefore, being equal means having the same rights. However, it does not mean looking alike, thinking, speaking, dressing, all behaving in the same way, which would be rather sad. Diversity is one of the fundamental values of our century: it is color, culture, wealth, exchange, growth, it is part of the history of every individual. I myself am different from who is reading me in this moment.
If we think carefully, it seems logical that if others are different in our eyes, we too will be different in the eyes of others. So how do you determine who is normal and who is different?
This is the culture that must be part of each individual.
Aldo, as always, thank you for adding your valuable perspective. This point you make is exactly what is missing in so much civil discourse today: “human beings are all equal, that is, they all have the same rights, the right to life, health, respect, the freedom to fulfill themselves according to their desires, the right to express their opinions, to choose their religion. Therefore, being equal means having the same rights. However, it does not mean looking alike, thinking, speaking, dressing, all behaving in the same way, which would be rather sad. Diversity is one of the fundamental values of our century: it is color, culture, wealth, exchange, growth, it is part of the history of every individual.”
It’s tough to tout “respect for diversity” as a fundamental value while also marginalizing those who do not look or think the way you do. I expanded on this in a comment below.
Wow! Thank you for this well written and thought provoking article on two seemingly different events that are clearly intertwined in today’s landscape. The dots are connected.
A very powerful article with many valid points Melissa. I agree with many facets of your argument, but in many ways your narrative positions you directly against most conservatives and almost paints us as thoughtless, heartless thugs with confederate flags secretly draped in our living rooms. We’re immediately put on the defense, the continuous trial of white Christian men having to answer for society’s black crime problem. Is that not in itself another sad byproduct in this American race narrative – being painted with a generic, wide paintbrush? Perhaps there are some merits to CRT, but I don’t think the answer to society’s problems is to continuously attack our white forefathers as the heads of some systemic legion of racists. It’s simply not true. Is it beneficial to re-examine history from a different lens, absolutely. But to mandate and enforce a new narrative while reshaping the facts is a dangerous proposition. Why not simply have CRT as an elective in which parents can choose for themselves whether to enroll their children. As well, I don’t stand for any form of police brutality. I abhor white on black violence, black on black violence… any form of human violence. Defunding law enforcement will not solve the issues, nor will it reduce society’s crime problem. This is an onion with many layers, and it all starts at the top with leadership. If we could see efforts from our elected officials to stop weaponizing identity politics and start focusing on direct community outreach, such as allocating more funds to law enforcement in areas of rehabilitation, than perhaps we could see some positive change. Instead it’s the same old song and dance between red and blue pointing fingers and getting nowhere… It comes down to two narratives, racism vs. indoctrination. What is the lesser of two evils? Neither. They both suck. These are media-driven, politically inflamed topics that instigate against our core values while putting money in the pockets of political race hustlers… red and blue alike. This is just my opinion for what it’s worth. I’m not trying to shape your outlook or refute your points. You have a logical perspective and I respect it, but we’re not going to see progress on either side until people like Biden and DeSantis come together in unity to stand against hate. Unfortunately that will never happen in our lifetime, so the cycle of FOX-CNN media conditioning will continue to poison minds while positioning us at odds. In the meantime crime and violence will continue to run unfiltered in our streets. I will say that well-crafted articles like this are certainly necessary to break the ice… to provoke critical thought and discussion. I thank you for that. We have to realize articles like these will attract some level of controversy… But it will also inspire a healthy debate. If we all continue to exist in our own red and blue echo chambers, then nothing will change and we will keep spinning our wheels. Indeed, we will never get anywhere fast… Best regards. It was a spirited and genuine article. Keep the faith in humanity and keep up the great work. 🙏
First, let me thank you for taking the time to read this piece and responding thoughtfully and respectfully. We agree on more than we don’t, but I wanted to take the time to respond equally as thoughtfully to you.
You say that my narrative positions me “directly against most conservatives and almost paints us as thoughtless, heartless thugs with confederate flags secretly draped in our living rooms. We’re immediately put on the defense, the continuous trial of white Christian men having to answer for society’s black crime problem.”
While it’s true that I disagree with many of conservative positions on social issues, my narrative is in no way pejorative toward conservatives or Christians. The ideology of social conservatism is founded upon the preservation of traditional values and beliefs (i.e., traditional family structures, gender roles, sexual relationships and religious traditions). This is not my opinion, and I didn’t address the conservative position inaccurately. They are quite publicly leading the charge on legislation that would further discriminate and marginalize already marginalized communities.
I believe what makes this country exceptional is that you and I can make decisions for our families based upon our own values and beliefs. It’s not a matter of not agreeing on those values; it’s about one group deciding that their values supercede the freedom of others to live according to their values.
For example, I respect one’s right to make decisions about abortion in line with his or her values. I don’t believe that right includes taking the right from me to make those decisions for my family. And yet, that’s where we are.
I agree with much of what you said about CRT, but I don’t agree with banning books that address slavery. The guidelines that sanctioned here in FL are restricting books that put slavery in a bad light and make white kids feel bad about it.
Just this week, DeSantis announced the state is blocking a new AP course on African American Studies because it included the study of 6 specific topics like “queer theory,” the Black Lives Matter Movement, and political movements that advocate for abolishing prisons.
As a teacher, when a student is curious about social justice, inequality and LGBTQ challenges, I’d like to offer a range of resources and let them explore different perspectives – not just resources with conservative values or liberal values.
In Duval County, 176 books were removed from all classrooms. These books were part of the Essential Voices Classroom Libraries Collection, award-winning books “featuring characters representing a variety of ethnicities, religious affiliations, and gender identities,” and “a wide range of texts and solutions to meet the needs of diverse school districts and students across the country.”
If we want to teach kids how to think, not what to think, then we need to give them opportunities to explore various viewpoints. Eliminating coursework and books that offer different perspectives seems completely antithetical to the goal of critical thinking.
Thank you for sharing your views and giving me the opportunity to respond. As you so eloquently put it,“If we all continue to exist in our own red and blue echo chambers, then nothing will change and we will keep spinning our wheels. Indeed, we will never get anywhere fast… I could not agree more!
Thank YOU for the healthy dialogue.