You can’t teach the truth without being honest

A Liberal Dose


I talked last week about the legislative bill that bans “divisive concepts” such as privilege, unconscious bias, structural racism, and other terms from higher education classes. This includes what the bill calls “sexual or racial scapegoating,” which might mean saying things like “in western civilization, men established and have maintained a patriarchy” or “white people enslaved Africans.”  It also specifically forbids claiming that the legal system was set up to protect the interests of one racial group over another.

I earned my history PhD at the University of Illinois, in 2011 (after six years of work). My dissertation was titled “Race, Slavery, and Nation in Indian Territory.” My doctoral focus was U.S. History, and the two fields of expertise I was examined on were the histories of race and ethnicity in the United States and the history of the American South. I say all that merely to show that the history of race, how the concept was developed, and how it works are things I have spent a lot of time thinking about, studying, writing about, and teaching. I am going to give you two examples of things I talk about in class that would be impossible to discuss in a frank, honest, and accurate manner while following the restrictions the Tennessee government is putting on higher education classrooms (which are supposed to be a site where adults - not children - gather for a free exchange of ideas and to be challenged).

Perhaps you have heard of the seminal Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), which called for the end of segregation in public schools and was the beginning of the end for racial segregation in general. This overturned Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), which had ruled racial segregation constitutional as long as the facilities were “separate but equal.” In Brown, NAACP lawyer Thurgood Marshall (who was later the first black Supreme Court justice) offered as evidence the research of two psychologists, Kenneth and Mamie Clark (a married couple). This included the now famous Clark Baby Doll Experiment.

Children were presented with an array of baby dolls, which came in a variety of skin tones - from very dark brown to very “white.” They were asked which doll was smartest and which was dumbest; which was laziest and which worked hardest; which was honest and which dishonest; which was good and which was bad. The children always picked the darkest brown baby for the negative categories and the whitest one for the positive ones. This was despite the fact that the children themselves were African-American. Now, those little girls’ parents did not sit them down as pre-schoolers and tell them that they were dumb, evil, or lazy because they were black. So where did they get that idea at such a young age? From the world around them. No one taught them specifically; they absorbed it. This, Marshall argued, proved that segregation was harmful, and helped win the case. That study was repeated a couple of times in the last decade or so, by the way, with the very same results (and with a variety of racial groups tested, not just little black girls). THAT indicates that the problem is not just segregation, because it ended long ago - the problem is the unconscious bias implicitly produced in our culture.

What I just said is apparently about to become illegal to say. I guess they just want us to say the court ended segregation without saying why.

The other example is the whole class I am currently teaching, American Indian Law, which is about federal policies toward Native Americans. Those policies were designed to take away Natives’ lands, limit their rights, and limit their tribal sovereignty - and still are. Oops, I did it again.

I did not study for years to teach you what you already think and want to keep hearing. I did it to teach you history.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.     


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