Whitewashing history

Jim Chrisinger: The bottom line from a new law’s whitewash of history appears to be protecting the feelings of white people, particularly white men. -promoted by Laura Belin

Add Iowa to the growing list of GOP-dominated states trying to prevent an honest historical reckoning on race and sex. While attention has focused on race, sex gets equal billing in House File 802, which Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law on June 8.  

A BAN ON “SCAPEGOATING” AND “STEREOTYPING”

Along with definitions, the law adds three new sections to Iowa code: one for state and local governments, one for public universities, and one for school districts.  

Training in state and local governments and school districts cannot teach or advocate “race or sex scapegoating” or “race or sex stereotyping.”  

“Race or sex scapegoating” means assigning fault, blame, or bias to a race or sex, or to members of a race or sex because of their race or sex, or claiming that, consciously or unconsciously, and by virtue of persons’ race or sex, members of any race are inherently racist or are inherently inclined to oppress others, or that members of a sex are inherently sexist or inclined to oppress others.

“Race or sex stereotyping” means ascribing character traits, values, moral and ethical codes, privileges, status, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.

The higher ed section bans training that teaches or advocates any of ten “specific defined concepts.” A few of the banned “concepts” are not likely to be included in any diversity training or instruction:    

  • That one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex.
  • That an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race or sex.
  • That an individual’s moral character is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex.

Most of the “specific defined concepts” are best left to social science and individuals’ experience, intellect, and consciences, once informed, such as:  

  • That an individual, solely because of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.
  • That members of one race or sex cannot and should not attempt to treat others without respect to race or sex.
  • That an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.
  • That any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.
  • That meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist, or were created by a particular race to oppress another race.

Two are even more problematic:

  • That the United States of America and the state of Iowa are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.
  • Any other form of race or sex scapegoating or any other form of race or sex stereotyping.

All three sections also ban discrimination based on political ideology, an effort to counter perceived discrimination against conservative students, student groups, and employees.    

The law was amended in the Iowa Senate to lessen the impact of the teaching bans. Those passages clarify that: 

  • Instructors can answer questions about scapegoating, stereotyping, or specific defined concepts, if asked. 
  • The law does not prevent promoting diversity and inclusiveness, as long as it is consistent with this law.  
  • Courts or agencies can discuss scapegoating, stereotyping, and specific defined concepts in the course of remedial actions.  

A superfluous paragraph admonishes against violating federal anti-discrimination laws.  

CONTRADICTIONS IN THE LAW’S TEXT

The higher education section includes the following passage: 

This section shall not be construed to . . . Inhibit or undermine a public institution of higher education’s duty to protect to the fullest degree intellectual freedom and free expression. The intellectual vitality of students and faculty shall not be infringed under this section.

A similar item appears in the school district section. How can the state ban topics and also protect intellectual freedom to the fullest degree? That does not seem possible.  

The law supports “training that fosters a workplace and learning environment that is respectful of all employees.” Is it respectful to Black Iowans or other people of color not to examine a history of oppression? Is it respectful to women not to examine how they were devalued or ignored for centuries? Hard truths aren’t disrespectful, they’re just hard to hear.  

The law specifically does not “prohibit the use of curriculum that teaches the topics of sexism, slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation or racial discrimination […].”

How does one do a credible and thorough job of writing such a curriculum without teaching about race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating? Stereotyping and scapegoating Blacks, other people of color, and women are fundamental facts in our history. The legislature is probably not best positioned to determine which stereotyping and scapegoating to teach and how.  

BIGGER PROBLEMS

This law takes the “book burning” approach to challenging societal problems. That never works.  

Conversations about race are inherently uncomfortable for most of us, especially we white males who have benefited from stereotyping and scapegoating. It’s pretty rich that all of a sudden white males are deeply sensitive to those practices.  

The problem is that many white people, particularly men, feel stereotyped and scapegoated when confronted with the facts and history, a phenomenon often referred to as “white fragility.” That could have been one of the “specific defined concepts.”  

White fragility: discomfort and defensiveness on the part of a white person when confronted by information about racial inequity and injustice.  

Thanks to their privilege, whites have long been protected from the racial stress that Blacks feel every day. Men have similarly enjoyed protection from confronting sexism.  

(At this point, some of the white males among you are probably thinking, “Wait a minute, I earned everything I got; no one gave me any privileges.” That’s what I thought too. My personal and often painful journey over the last ten years has shown me otherwise. My advice is to be open to learning.)

Republican State Representative Steve Holt, who floor managed this bill in the House, told the Des Moines Register, “The point of this is that using racism or being racist to teach against racism is ridiculous.” 

It’s not racist to talk about race. It’s racist to refuse to talk about race. Be honest about what happened. Have the courage to confront our past and present. Obviously, there’s a need for strategies and techniques — and patience — to help white people constructively have these conversations.   

That there is structural racism in American society appears to be established beyond a doubt. It’s important that we — collectively — do the research, present evidence, hold that debate, and come to consensus if we can. Let the marketplace of ideas work; the legislature and governor should not try to stifle it.  

THE VALUE OF HISTORY

History helps us understand why things are the way they are now. We cannot really understand the present without understanding the past. And if we do not really understand the present, we cannot make good decisions about the future. 

Rather than hiding from history, as this law would have us do, we should acknowledge that our history of race and sex presents extremely difficult questions and issues. Overcoming the legacies of racism and sexism will require hard, honest examinations of the past and present.  

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” Maya Angelou reminded us. If we don’t grapple our way through this reckoning, we will perpetuate the past. Forthright conversations will only make us stronger and more resilient.  

The version of history we tell ourselves matters. After the Civil War, southern whites told themselves the story of the Lost Cause, which made Jim Crow inevitable after federal troops were completely withdrawn in 1877. Arguably, the South lost the battles but won the war.  

Adolf Hitler convinced the German people of a version of history where Germany lost World War I because the country was “stabbed in the back” by Jews and Communists. We know how that turned out.  But by honestly confronting the Nazi era and the holocaust, West Germans, particularly younger West Germans, were able to transcend that past. East Germans were not so honest, and that failure continues to hobble German politics today.  

The writing of history is never over; it is a process of continually seeking the best available truth through more information, additional voices, and the perspective of time. House File 802 is the antithesis of that approach. We don’t teach enough history as it is. This law will result in even less teaching.  

WHY NOW?

Republican-controlled legislatures in about a dozen states have been battling “critical race theory” lately. Why now?

Holt mentioned some Black Lives Matter curriculum materials used in Ames schools this year. But the effort looks more like denialism, or another way to “own the libs” and play to the GOP base. 

At a minimum, Iowa’s new law will have a chilling effect, encouraging faculty, trainers, teachers, students, employees, and others to self-censor around these hard conversations. The bottom line appears to be slowing history and protecting the feelings of white people, particularly white men.  

Jim Chrisinger is a retired public servant who worked in Democratic and Republican administrations in Iowa and elsewhere. He lives in Ankeny, where he enjoys reading history.  

Editor’s note from Laura Belin: House File 802 was approved on party-line votes in the Iowa House and Senate. A June 8 news release from the governor’s office included the following statement about the bill:

“Critical Race Theory is about labels and stereotypes, not education. It teaches kids that we should judge others based on race, gender or sexual identity, rather than the content of someone’s character,” said Gov. Reynolds. “I am proud to have worked with the legislature to promote learning, not discriminatory indoctrination.” 

  • doesn't mean what you think it means

    Excellent! Thank you to Jim and BH for getting such a comprehensive critique out so quickly. As I read the piece, I kept puzzling over the formula in the new law, teachers now may not teach that the US is “systematically racist.” Never having seen that precise language, I went looking. It was borrowed from Trump’s ill-fated Executive Order last fall and only a few commentators from the FoxNews menagerie have ever used it. So, we should all be tempted to say, “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

    The drafters made a fundamental reading error – they confused “systematic” with “systemic.” Those seem similar, you might say. But not. “Systemically,” so the Google tell me, means “according to a fixed plan or system; methodically.” It deals with the intention of an action. “Systemic,” on the other hand, means “relating to a system, especially as opposed to a particular part.” It deals with the result.

    Systemic racism is of course centerpiece of the objectionable left wing analysis. And as Jim points out, the idea that intentional racism in the past is enbedded in the structures of many of our institutions “is established beyond a doubt.” As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.”

    So, the new law does not, by its very terms, deal with systemic racism, institutional racism, structural racism, disparate impact analysis. This understandable sophomore vocabulary error will, I think, come back to haunt the Republicans in the long expensive legal fight that they have provoked.

  • On a more cheerful note...

    …I am very pleased, as a lifelong though extremely amateur birder, that the birding community is now looking at bird names with the goal of changing the problematic ones. The former McCown’s Longspur, for example, is now the Thick-Billed Longspur, because John Porter McCown was a Confederate general.

    I’m hoping and assuming that no hostile legislation will be introduced to try to stop this process, which is being undertaken partly to make birding more inclusive and welcoming. It’s good that this is being done. Besides, that longspur, a beautiful little prairie bird, does have a nice thick bill.

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