When #Red Beats #Purple, or, How Conservatives Have Already Lost this Round

Me, I don’t mind if conservatives lose this battle. But I can’t help but think that they’d rather win. If so, they should avoid the tactics of Trump and #PurpleforParents and focus instead on what has always worked in the past.

purple forparents

A losing strategy in action…

Here’s what we know: In the face of sweeping victories for #RedforEd protests, conservatives have turned to accusations that teachers are just dupes in a grand subversive scheme to undermine core American values. You may have seen a recent video making the rounds, in which Jennifer warns of

RedforEd, the NEA, and the radical agenda behind it.

These warnings have been circulating on the Right for a while now. As Breitbart noted last year, #RedforEd has become a front for “social justice demagogues” who don’t care about parents’ “values and attitudes.”

In the past, conservatives have had great success by painting teachers’ unions and other educational experts as subversive, anti-American organizations. In the 1970s, for example, conservative Alice Moore won big when she attacked the “Educational Bureaucracy” and fought for

Our right as parents to rear our children according to our own moral, ethical and religious beliefs without interference.

Will the same strategy work for #PurpleforParents? Can Jennifer and her allies convince America that #RedforEd is just a scheme? A racket to fool parents into indoctrinating their children with anti-American values?

alice moore posterI don’t think so. Historically, the fight in school politics has always been for the middle. Whoever can prove she is fighting for better schools will win. Alice Moore won in West Virginia in 1975 by fighting for better textbooks for students. She won by convincing enough neighbors that she represented better schools, the “best academic education possible.”

So far, #RedforEd has been able to maintain its position as the voice of high-quality public education. Protests have kept their focus on improving schools for students. In St. Paul, for example, teacher protests have demanded

class size limits, paid teacher visits to their students’ homes, a new approach to school climate, and the hiring of more counselors, social workers, nurses and psychologists.

Teachers are making similar demands all over North America, from California to Canada.

Will it work? Who knows. But #RedforEd benefited from an unforced error by President Trump. When Trump excoriated “failing government schools,” he unwittingly left the field in the hands of protesting teachers. As long as #RedforEd is seen as a protest in favor of good schools for students, red-baiting conservatives will have no luck.

Thanks to KD for the tip!


From the Archives: Protecting Children from Imaginary Threats

Okay, so we know Trump’s recent announcement about protecting student prayer in schools was nonsensical. Students already CAN pray in school if they want. In a different sense, however, Trump’s prayer defense was not only politically savvy, but a continuation of a long tradition of wildly disproportionate responses to non-existent threats. This morning, a few examples from the archives.

Trump prayer anncment tweetExample 1: Harold Rugg’s textbooks, 1939. I’ve read them. In a word, they are bland. Hardly the stuff to inspire violent protests. They were hugely popular in the 1930s, selling millions of copies. In 1939, conservative groups such as the American Legion and National Association of Manufacturers fretted that these books were indoctrinating students in left-wing directions.

What happened? In cities across the Northeast and at least one town in rural Wisconsin, conservatives threatened to pile the books up and burn them.


Boring…boring…boring from within.

Burning textbooks in an era of Nazi occupation in Europe seems like a remarkably disproportionate response to a popular textbook. So why do it?

Among themselves, Legionnaires warned darkly that Rugg’s books were only the sharp edge of a long-planned socialist revolution. As one Legion activist wrote in a private letter, colleges like Teachers College at Columbia University had become nests of “socialist fanatics” who schemed to use Rugg’s textbooks as part of their plan to subvert American institutions.

roscoe letterWe can only make sense of the violent response to Rugg’s textbooks if we put the story in this imaginary context. In the imaginations of many conservatives, Rugg’s textbooks were an immediate threat to American society as a whole. Destroying them was the only way to protect children from that imaginary threat.

Example 2: Fast forward a few decades and conservatives again responded violently to an imaginary school threat. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, a new set of textbooks was approved by the state. When conservatives previewed the books, they were alarmed by what they saw. School-board member Alice Moore denounced the books as anti-American, anti-Christian, and even simply anti-proper-English.

Local conservatives agreed and they boycotted local schools until the offending books were removed.

The boycott became violent. Schools were firebombed, busses shot, and the school-board building dynamited. Two people got shot along the picket lines.

alice moore posterAgain, seems like a startlingly violent reaction to a fairly humdrum textbook problem. Along the picket lines, however, activists were circulating flyers with shocking language. The quotations were purportedly from the offending textbooks, but the offensive language was not found in the actual adopted textbooks. In the imagination of the protesters, however, it seemed entirely believable that school textbooks in 1974 might really include offensive sexual language. They were willing to take extreme measures to protect children from these threats, even though the threats never really existed.

alice moore again

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

We could cite other examples from throughout the twentieth century. When it came to racial integration, for example, attempts to integrate schools from Boston to Oxford, Mississippi were routinely met with ferocious violence.

It’s not surprising to find such violence in educational politics. People care a lot about their kids, obviously. And they care a lot about controlling schools. In this case, though, there’s a particularly virulent form of culture-war violence at play. It’s not only about actual policy, but of imagined threats to an imagined past.

For many conservatives, public schools traditionally included God. And that’s not imaginary–public schools really do have a long history of being dominated by white evangelical Protestants. The history of the twentieth century can be seen as a long struggle to nudge or shove evangelicalism out of its historically dominant role. Integration, school prayer, sexuality, history textbooks…all became symbols of the ever-diminishing clout of white evangelicals in public schools and in public life.

Consider one final example of the unique power of schools in America’s culture-war imagination. Years after the fact, one of the schemers behind the “New Christian Right” in the 1970s and 1980s remembered the issue that got conservative Christians most riled up. As Paul Weyrich recalled, it wasn’t “abortion, school prayer, or the ERA.” Sure, those things made conservatives mad in the 1970s, but they didn’t push conservative Christians en masse to the GOP. The issue that did? According to Weyrich,

Jimmy Carter’s [1978] intervention against the Christian schools, trying to deny them tax-exempt status on the basis of so-called de facto segregation.

Against this historical backdrop, Trump’s nonsensical protection of school prayer makes a little more sense. Schools play a unique and uniquely influential role in culture-war politics. Even imaginary threats—perhaps especially imaginary threats—get people roused with violent fury.

In that sense, it should come as no surprise that Trump played the school-prayer card. It isn’t sensible policy, but it tends to get people angry. In that sense, it seems like a perfect example of Trumpism in action.

Why Conservatives Should Love Obama

He did it! I don’t how it happened, but somehow President Barack Obama managed to accomplish one of the most dreamed-for educational goals of America’s social conservatives. During his presidency, that is, early teen sexual activity dropped significantly, according to the CDC.

I know, I know, it’s ridiculous to give Obama credit for something that merely happened to coincide with his time in the White House. But that’s what culture-war pundits do all the time. In this case, the numbers are pretty significant, and the cause is among those nearest and dearest to the hearts of American conservatives.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, helping kids avoid the allure of premarital sex has always been one of the fondest educational dreams of social conservatives, especially conservative religious reformers. Why was evolutionary theory dangerous? If we taught children they were nothing but clever animals, they would certainly behave that way. Why was old-fashioned discipline important? Because children needed to learn to control their sinful, lusting nature.

I hate to do it, but let me quote myself here. When Alice Moore first joined the school board in Kanawha County, West Virginia in the 1970s, one of her first acts was to close down a progressive middle school. When I interviewed Moore I asked her about it. Here’s what I wrote in the book about Moore’s experience:

The school, Moore recalled, was not a proper learning institution. It had become a cesspool of unrestrained sloth and lust. The students, she recalled, did “whatever they wanted to.” As she walked in for her first inspection, a young couple stood in the doorway, wrapped in each other’s arms. She had to ask them to move out of her way, which they did only with notable resentment. Other students wandered around the school and neighboring fields, smoking and engaging in all kinds of sexual activity in nearby barns. When Moore asked the principal to explain this sort of behavior, he informed Moore that the school hoped to do more than simply transmit information to students; it hoped to transform them into agents of social change. Teachers should see their roles as co-learners, not as dictators.

This sort of progressive shibboleth exasperated Moore.

At the heart of warped progressive-ed thinking, Moore believed, was a mistaken notion of the nature of humanity. Lust needed to be schooled out of children, not winked and nodded at as a “natural” thing. Moore was not at all the only conservative activist to think this way. Consider William J. Bennett’s conservative index of cultural indicators. Bennett’s accusations were clear: Hippies had wrecked everything. Progressive attitudes in education had led to woeful increases in dangerous sexual activities among young people, in addition to crime, drug use, etc.

In short, for a hundred years now, educational conservatives have desperately dreamed of reducing the progressive dominance of “If it feels good, do it” attitudes among young people. And now, at long last, we seem to have some evidence that those dreams have come true, at least in part.

CDC teen sex chart 2

The  good news no one will holler about…

Here’s what we know: The excitingly named “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” from the Centers for Disease Control notes significant declines in sexual intercourse among America’s 9th and 10th graders (roughly 14- and 15-year olds). As the authors state,

Nationwide, the proportion of high school students who had ever had sexual intercourse decreased significantly overall and among 9th and 10th grade students, non-Hispanic black (black) students in all grades, and Hispanic students in three grades. A similar pattern by grade was observed in nearly half the states (14), where the prevalence of ever having had sexual intercourse decreased only in 9th grade or only in 9th and 10th grades; nearly all other states saw decreases in some or all grades. The overall decrease in the prevalence of ever having had sexual intercourse during 2005–2015 is a positive change in sexual risk among adolescents (i.e., behaviors that place them at risk for human immunodeficiency virus, STI, or pregnancy) in the United States, an overall decrease that did not occur during the preceding 10 years.

Why? We don’t know. And of course I’m kidding when I give President Obama credit. There are some things we can confidently predict, however. First of all, I don’t think we’ll see pundits shouting about this good news. As we’ve lamented here at ILYBYGTH in the past, good news about America’s schools and youth just never gets headlines.

Second, the warped popular myths about America’s public schools will continue to dominate. Gallup polls make it startlingly clear: When people know public schools, they like them. But when they describe public schools in general, people call them terrible. The notion that America’s public schools are cesspools of drugs, sex, and sloth is not true, but it is very widely held. Similarly, this data about trends in youth culture will not likely change people’s assumptions about schools and youth.

Finally, this student data points out yet again that the common story about the history of American public education is just not true. Many of us assume that progressive types took over public education back in the 1930s. We think that since the 1930s (or maybe since the 1960s) public schools have been dominated by progressive educators from fancy teachers’ colleges and think tanks. It’s just not true. Throughout their existence, public schools have reflected the values of their local communities. When those communities change their ideas about sexual activity, so too do their local schools. Educational change hasn’t come from high-level meetings by New York leftists, but rather from more nebulous and  hard-to-trace shifts in social trends.

Why do more and more young people seem to be avoiding early sexual activity? I don’t know, but I’ll guess: It’s not due to any sex-ed curriculum they’re receiving in their Health classes. No, the change in reported sexual activity is more likely due to changes in our whole society about the allure of sexual intercourse. After all, as we like to say here at ILYBYGTH, schools don’t change society, schools ARE society.

Required Listening: Us & Them

Can we talk across the culture-war divide?  That’s the question journalist Trey Kay is asking in his new podcast series, Us & Them.  Is it worth talking to someone with whom we have fundamental disagreements?

In his first episode, Trey Kay describes his culture-war-defying friendship with conservative activist Alice Moore.  Kay first got to know Alice Moore when he was working on an earlier documentary about the 1974-75 textbook controversy in Kanawha County, West Virginia.

As the sophisticated and good-looking regular readers of I Love You but You’re Going to Hell (SAGLRROILYBYGTH) are well aware, this Kanawha County story also plays a prominent role in my recent book about educational conservatism.  Alice Moore played a leading role as a conservative leader in that tumultuous school boycott.

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing...

Ms. Moore makes her case in a crowded 1974 school-board hearing…

In his first podcast, Kay describes his continuing friendship with her.  The two of them inhabit different culture-war realms; Kay is a self-identified “blue-state liberal,” while Moore is a “red-state conservative.”  More than that, Ms. Moore believes in a conservative evangelical Protestantism that liberals often find intellectually outrageous.

Can the two of them be friends?

At the very least, it would take careful diplomacy on both sides. As Kay asked himself, “I have core beliefs.  What if I truly felt that they were under attack?”

Check out the whole episode when you’ve got a few spare minutes.  Kay and Moore manage to do the things friends do: Get a meal together, talk about politics and religion.  Yet neither of them budges an inch on his or her core beliefs.

Are such conversations worth having?  As Kay includes in this episode, his editor wasn’t sure.  She told Kay, “I don’t know how you can stand to have this conversation.”  It seemed to Kay’s editor that he was listening to Moore, but Moore wasn’t listening back.



Yet Kay remained convinced there was some value to such outreach programs.  He asked historian Jonathan Zimmerman’s opinion.  Zimmerman insisted that Americans need to speak with each other; we need a common language to discuss “American problems . . . shared by all of us.”  The most dangerous culture-war idea going around, Zimmerman said, is that those who disagree with us are either morally warped or ignorant.

Trey Kay hopes his new series will help figure out “what might happen if we take the time to listen to each other.”  Can it work?

Kansex Teachers: No More Excuses

Here’s the question: If a teacher shows students lewd and lascivious material, can she escape punishment because that material is part of an approved curriculum? Not if a new bill in Kansas is approved. The case raises some difficult questions: Are some forms of knowledge harmful? If so, who gets to decide which ones? …and how?

Those aren’t the only difficult questions. The bill itself is hard to figure out at first glance. Politico reported yesterday that the bill has already passed through the Senate and is heading for the House. Senate Bill 56 amends an earlier law. If 56 passes, teachers will no longer be able to defend themselves against charges of impropriety by saying that any offensive material was part of an approved curriculum.

It’s a little confusing, so I’ll say it again: An earlier state law had specified that librarians, college professors, and K-12 teachers could be prosecuted for using any material “harmful to minors” unless that material was owned (or leased) by the school or library and used as part of an “approved course or program of instruction.”

Under the proposed law, professors and librarians could still claim that defense, but K-12 teachers could not. The bill had its origins in a poster controversy last year. The poster listed ways people might act on their sexual feelings. The sponsor of today’s bill, Senator Mary Pilcher-Cook, called it “highly offensive and harmful.”

Is this a misdemeanor?

Is this a misdemeanor?

Pilcher-Cook’s attitude raises a central culture-war question. The notion that children in school must be protected from harmful words and ideas is a vital tradition among educational conservatives.

To be clear, not only conservatives want to ban harmful ideas from schools. Progressives, too, often assume that certain kinds of knowledge are harmful. From Huckleberry Finn to the University of Oklahoma, for instance, racist language and ideas have long been targets for progressive censorship. Merely hearing racist words, some activists have argued, can damage children.

In the case of sex education, though, progressives tend to think that more information is a good thing. Students need to hear explicit sexual terms. Students need to know about specific sex acts. Learning it in a classroom setting, the classic progressive argument goes, is better than learning it on the street.

Conservatives, in contrast, often think that exposure to sexual information is damaging. In this case, as Senator Pilcher-Cook told Politico, the “damage” caused by the middle-school sex-ed poster “could not be undone.” Merely hearing these words constitutes harm to children.

As I argue in my new book, conservatives have traditionally enjoyed great political success with these anti-sex-ed arguments. In the 1970s, for example, conservative school board member Alice Moore from Kanawha County, West Virginia, rallied protesters against a new series of textbooks by reading part of a salacious passage, then refusing to go on because the material was too offensive.

Children, the argument goes, are harmed by seeing or hearing certain sexual terms. They are harmed by knowing about certain sex acts. One goal of proper education, some feel, must be to protect children from these kinds of sexual knowledge.

The language of the Kansas bill makes clear the crux of the issue. If enacted into law, teachers could be prosecuted for sharing material that is “harmful to minors,” even if that material is part of an approved curriculum. Of course, such a law would put teachers in a terrible pickle.

Supporters of the bill insist that common-sense guidelines would protect teachers. As we all know, though, common sense is anything but common. Teachers and parents who think explicit sexual information is helpful would be up against those who think the exact same information is harmful.

Beyond such concerns, though, the language of the bill reveals our divided conscience. No one thinks teachers should harm students. But is exposure to information about sexual behavior—even explicit information—harmful?

Do White Conservatives Hate Black People?

What is the connection between conservatism and school segregation?  A new “retro report” in the New York Times about the desegregation project in Charlotte, North Carolina assumes that “conservatives” obviously opposed desegregation.  Is that connection really as obvious as it seems?

The desegregation documentary describes Charlotte’s experience.  In the 1970s, Charlotte and surrounding Mecklenburg County became the focus of a newly aggressive court-ordered busing program.  Schools and school districts, the Supreme Court ruled, must do more to ensure racial balance in public schools.

The initial reaction in Charlotte was furious, but the program eventually became the poster child for busing.  So much so that a federal judge ruled in 1999 that the district had fulfilled its deseg obligations.  At least partly as a result, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are now resegregated by race and income level.

For historians of race and education, the story is not news.  But for those of us trying to understand the meanings of “conservatism” in American education, the way it is told is important.  The New York Times piece includes comments by journalist B. Drummond Ayres Jr. In that “Reporter’s Notebook,” Ayres offers an explanation for the winning campaign to resegregate America’s schools.  As Ayres explains,

White parental anger was the most obvious cause of this rollback. But an equally important factor was the election of two conservative Presidents, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They did not oppose the nation’s move toward racial equality, but as conservatives they favored a slower, more measured approach to desegregation and underscored that approach by appointing staunch conservatives to the Supreme Court and lower Federal courts. Concurrently, Congress took a more measured approach to desegregation, too, as voters began sending more and more anti-busing conservatives to Capitol Hill. [Emphasis added.]

In this telling, “conservatives” have been the brake on the progress of racial desegregation.  Politicians who considered themselves conservative had a prescribed opinion toward school desegregation.

Is that a fair accusation?  Did conservatives as a rule really push for slower desegregation?  More interesting, how did conservatism come to be perceived as the side of white racial status-quo-ism?

In my current book, I explore two twentieth-century school controversies in which race and school deseg played leading parts.  The first took place in Pasadena, California, in 1950, the second in Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974.

In Pasadena, a “progressive” school superintendent added racial desegregation to his list of progressive reforms.  Conservatives kicked him out.  In Kanawha County, a new textbook series included provocative excerpts from black militants such as Eldridge Cleaver.  Conservatives boycotted to demonstrate their dissatisfaction with the books.

Each time, the conservative side became the side of anti-black racism.  But in each case, conservatives insisted they were not racist.

In Pasadena, for example, one woman stood up at a heated school-board meeting and denied all charges of racism.  She opposed the desegregation plan but said she could not be racist, since one of her closest friends was African American.

In Kanawha County, too, book protesters often insisted they were not racist.  Teacher and activist Karl Priest, for example, has insisted for decades that the conservative protesters embodied the true anti-racist position.

But evidence contradicts these conservative anti-racist claims.  In Pasadena, conservatives rallied political support based on opposition to race mixing in public schools.  Conservatives accused the progressive superintendent of raising taxes and dumbing down white schools by including students of other races.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

And in Kanawha County, as documentarian Trey Kay has shown, conservatives really did see the book protest as a race war.  Steve Horan remembered in 2010 that a rumor spread among white conservatives in 1974: African Americans planned to invade.  The men readied their guns.   Women and children took shelter in church basements.  If that’s not racism, what is it?

There seems to be at least some justification for journalists’ assumptions that “conservatism” stands staunchly opposed to racial integration in schools.

But it is also important to recognize the complexity of conservative attitudes toward race and schooling.  It is not enough to simply say that “conservatives” block school desegregation because they dislike black people.

The case of Kanawha County helps make this more complicated point.  Many of the conservative leaders of the protest, such as Karl Priest and Avis Hill, belonged to conservative churches with a thoroughly biracial membership.  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

And conservative leader Alice Moore built her anti-textbook arguments on the work of African American activist Stephen Jenkins.  Jenkins had argued that textbooks that included only violent writings by African Americans actually represented the true anti-black racism.  Those who wanted to oppose the depiction of African Americans as violent anti-American criminals, Jenkins argued, needed to oppose the wrong-headed push for “multiculturalism.”  If that’s not anti-racism, what is it?

Across the country, “conservative” anti-busing protesters made similar claims to be the true anti-racists.  In Boston, for example, as Ron Formisano has shown, “conservative” anti-busers in the 1970s accused “liberal” federal judge Arthur Garrity of being the true racist.  Garrity had ordered busing to achieve racial balance in Boston’s schools, yet he lived in the affluent lily-white enclave of Wellesley, where his children would attend all-white schools.  Who was the racist in that scenario?

Did conservatives oppose busing and forcible school desegregation?  In most cases, yes.

Will we understand conservatism in schooling if we explain that position as simple racism?  In most cases, no.

White conservatives seem, in many cases, to have been motivated by anti-black racism.  But in almost all cases, that racism was only one component of a complex conservatism that also included issues of school funding, textbook content, religious rights, classroom practice, and a host of other issues.

Calling it “racism” and walking away doesn’t do enough.  Ayres deserves credit for noting that leading conservatives often supported anti-racist policies.  Conservatives often insisted that they opposed forcible busing and forcible integration.  They did so as part of a complicated conservative worldview, one that looked toward the status quo–including but not by any means limited to the racial status quo–for support.

So did white conservatives hate black people?  Did conservatives oppose school desegregation out of disdain for non-whites?

In some cases, probably.  But it is not very useful to assume that such racist attitudes are the end of our discussion.  Rather, understanding the complex attitudes toward race among conservatives–as among Americans as a whole–requires a more careful understanding of a complex conservative ideology.



Are We Post-Racial Yet? Conservatives and Affirmative Action

It appears the US Supreme Court’s non-decision today about affirmative action won’t settle anything. In its 7-1 ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court sent the case back down to lower courts to decide.  This doesn’t rule out university use of affirmative action policies in admissions, but it does not exactly endorse it either.

Significantly, Court conservatives including Justices Scalia and Thomas voted with the majority today, but both indicated they would be willing (eager?) to rule such affirmative-action policies unconstitutional.

Legal and higher-ed policy wonks will have plenty to chew over in coming days.

For me, the recent ruling underscores the ways debates over affirmative action in university admissions policies have become a stand-in for conservative sentiment about race and racism in America.  Though it is too simple to say anything about conservatism as a whole, the last forty years have established a new kind of anti-racist conservatism.  These self-described anti-racists, however, have struggled to convince anyone besides themselves of their sincere dedication to fighting racism and traditional preferences that favor whites.

The recent SCOTUS history alone has given the debate over race and schooling a kick in the pants.  In the late 1970s, in the Bakke case, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of any racial quotas in college admissions.

More recently, in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), SCOTUS decided that race could be used in admissions decisions, as one category among others.  The key element in this decision was that race could be used to further the state’s interest in fostering a diverse learning environment.

One influential strain of opinion among conservatives can be summed up in a pithy statement by Chief Justice Roberts from 2007.  In a case from Seattle, Roberts insisted, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.”

Conservative thinking on this issue has, in some ways, remained remarkably constant for the past generation.  In the mid-1980s, for instance, writing for the Heritage Foundation, Philip Lawler articulated a conservative critique of affirmative action admissions policies that sounds fresh today.  Such policies, Lawler argued, effectively promote racism against African Americans and other historically underrepresented college populations.  Affirmative action degrades true achievement and breeds resentment towards all African Americans.  It also leads to a racist dismissal of the true achievements of some African Americans.

Former US Representative Allen West made similar arguments in his amicus brief filed in the Fisher case.  “Race-conscious policies do not advance – in fact, they harm – the most compelling of all governmental interests: protecting and defending our Nation’s security. This is true whether practiced by colleges and universities (which, together with the Nation’s military academies, produce the majority of the commissioned officers in our country’s military), or by the military itself in the selection and advancement of its officer and enlisted personnel,” West argued.  West, a prominent African American conservative, argued that affirmative action policies degraded all applicants, African Americans most of all.

The problem with these kinds of conservative arguments is that they are often dismissed as mere window dressing.  With important exceptions such as Representative West and Justice Clarence Thomas, most African Americans support affirmative action policies.  The NAACP, for instance, has consistently and energetically supported Texas’ race-conscious admissions policy.  The National Black Law Students Association, in its amicus brief in the Fisher case noted the “systematic racial hierarchy that produces and perpetuates racial disparities in educational opportunities and outcomes.”  Affirmative-action admissions policies, the NBLSA insisted, remained necessary to promote a truly non-racist society.  Conservative insistence that such affirmative action policies actually support anti-black racism tends to fall on deaf ears among the majority of African Americans and whites who consider themselves racial liberals.

Conservative activists and intellectuals—white and black—often express what seems like honest surprise when accused of anti-black racism.  Perhaps one episode that illustrates this kind of conservative anti-racism might be that of Alice Moore and the 1974 Kanawha County textbook protest.  In this battle from the Charleston region of West Virginia, conservative parents and activists protested against a new series of English Language Arts textbooks.  Among the many complaints were protests against the inclusion of authors such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson.  Such militant African American voices, many Kanawha County residents insisted, did not belong in school textbooks.  Conservative leaders insisted that this was not because they were black, but because they were violent and criminal, and apparently proud of it.

Conservative leader Alice Moore came to the 1974 controversy freshly schooled in the ideology of anti-racist conservatism.  She had attended a conference in which conservative African American politician Stephen Jenkins blasted the anti-black implications of multicultural literature.  Such literature collections, Jenkins insisted, implied that the violent, angry, criminal voices of militants such as George Jackson and Eldridge Cleaver represented the thinking of African Americans.  Such implications, Jenkins explained, proved that the true racists were the multiculturalists.  By pushing a skewed vision of African American culture, such multicultural textbooks implied that African Americans as a whole were criminal and violent.

Moore embraced this sort of anti-racist conservative ideology.  When she (politely, as always) confronted African American leader Ron English at a heated board of education meeting, Moore seemed honestly flummoxed that the English did not agree with her.  Moore pointed out that voices such as Jackson and Cleaver did not fairly represent the truths of African American life.  But The Reverend English rebutted that such militant voices represented an important part of the American experience, stretching back to Tom Paine.

Moore’s befuddlement in 1974 matches that of anti-racist, anti-affirmative action conservatives today.  Many conservatives feel that their opposition to affirmative action makes them the true anti-racists.  Yet they consistently find themselves accused of racism.  The fight over Fisher never seemed to be changing this dynamic.  Now that the Court has punted, there is even less resolution on offer.  Conservative notions that true anti-racism requires the elimination of race-based considerations in college admissions will likely continue to fall on deaf ears among leading African American advocacy groups.

Nothing New? Not Quite, Mr. Perlstein

Is Toni Morrison bad for young people?  How about porn and graphic violence?

In yesterday’s Nation, Rick Perlstein offered an insightful article into the nature of these sorts of school debates over books.  As usual, Perlstein writes with clarity and perspective.  But his argument would be better if he had included a longer historical perspective.

The specific issue that attracted Perlstein’s attention was a recent flap in Fairfax County, Virginia, over the reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  As Perlstein reported, parents complained about gruesome depictions of bestiality and rape.

Beyond just reporting another such dust-up, Perlstein made some great points about the predictable pattern of such cultural controversies.

First, he noted from his historical research into the 1970s how common it has been for conservative activists to claim to be merely shocked and offended parents, taken by surprise by the filth brought home in student backpacks.

Second, he decried the too-easy sanctimony of some liberals.  It is too easy to take the Kevin-Bacon-in-Footloose position, Perlstein wrote.

“Liberals get in the biggest political trouble, . . .” Perlstein argued in his 2008 book Nixonland, “when they presume a reform is an inevitable concomitant of progress.”

Perlstein’s argument is certainly worth reading in its entirety.  But it would be even stronger if he had stretched his timeline beyond the wall of 1968.  As I argued in my 1920s book, and as I’m developing in my current book, in order to understand conservative educational activism we have to go back at least to the 1920s.

For instance, the tradition of objecting to textbook content has long been a central conservative educational tactic.  Anti-evolution firebrand T.T. Martin tried this strategy in 1923.  The textbook at issue, Harold Fairbanks’ Home Geography for Primary Grades, contained a few basic evolutionary concepts.  Children reading such things, Martin charged, would soon abandon their Christian faith.  In typically colorful prose, Martin warned, “that child’s faith in the Saviour is gone forever, and her soul is doomed for Hell; and with your taxes, you paid to have it done.”

Image Source: JacketFlap

Image Source: JacketFlap

Similarly, an examination of the 1940 campaign to eliminate the social-studies textbooks of Harold Rugg could add a great deal to this conversation.  Before they came under attack from conservative activists in the American Legion and National Association of Manufacturers, these books sold in the millions.  Critics charged, however, that the books would pervert young people’s minds and morals.  As one influential American Legion critic put it in 1940, children reading Rugg’s books would soon be

“convinced that our ‘capitalistic system’ is the fault of selfish fellows like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who wanted to save their property; that the poor man wasn’t given proper consideration, that in Russia the youth are engaged in creating a beautiful, new democratic order, that modern business is for the benefit of the profit-makers, that advertising in an economic waste, that morality is a relative value, and that family life will soon be radically changed by state control.”    

Or consider this gem from the 1950s...

Or consider this gem from the 1950s…

Including the longer history of these sorts of controversies offers more than a chance for historians to sell a few more books.

In cases like this, a longer perspective helps us see that there are indeed ways in which each new book controversy offers “nothing new,” as Perlstein’s title suggested.  But there are other aspects of this long history that show us how things have changed dramatically.

Most compellingly, Perlstein comments that activists in 2013 seem to be reading from a conservative script in some ways.  In every case—whether from 2013 or 1974—activists claim to be mere surprised parents, frightened and disgusted by the literature imposed on their students.

Perlstein compares this to similar stories from the 1970s.  But there are equally familiar stories from much further back.  The wildly popular evangelist Bob Jones Sr. used to warn his audiences in the 1920s about the surprises in store for conservative parents at many modern schools.  One family had scrimped and saved to send their daughter to a fancy college.  The parents had no idea what kind of teaching went on there.  After one year, Jones preached,

“she came home with her faith shattered.  She laughed at God and the old time religion.  She broke the hearts of her father and mother.  They wept over her.  They prayed over her.  It availed nothing.  At last they chided her.  She rushed upstairs, stood in front of a mirror, took a gun and blew out her brains.”

In the 1920s, as in the 1930s, ’40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s, these claims of parent shock and surprise at the influence of schooling have resonated powerfully among American conservatives.

In other ways, the longer view can give us hope that this culture war is not simply and eternally deadlocked.  Since the 1970s, for instance, conservatives like the ones Perlstein mentioned have all argued that their opposition to books such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved did not make them racist.  Perlstein cites 1970s activist Alice Moore, who argued that her policies echoed those of the NAACP.  (Listen to this clip from a 1974 school board meeting in which Moore makes her case: Kanawha Board 4 – 11-74 – 3.

Such conservative efforts to fight an image of racism go back beyond the 1970s.  In a school fight in Pasadena in the late 1940s and early 1950s, conservatives insisted they did not fight against new zoning rules because they were racist.  In one telling comment, a conservative activist insisted that she could not have been racist, since her school petition had been signed by “her Negro, Mexican and Oriental neighbors” as well as whites.  She could not be a racist, she said, because she had quickly become friends with one of her new neighbors, a “Negro physician.”

However, before World War II, conservative activists made no such efforts to combat an image of racism.  As historian Jeffrey Moran has long argued (see here and here) white religious conservatives in the 1920s often paid little attention to their African American co-religionists.

Does it matter?  Can a longer historical perspective give us better understanding of the battle over Beloved in Fairfax County?

If we don’t see the ways conservative school activism has changed over the decades, we might be tempted to conclude too quickly, as Perlstein seems to do, that nothing ever changes.  That would be misleading.

Instead, the longer lens shows us that school battles have indeed changed dramatically over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  For those of us who agree with Perlstein that schools should force students to “think and question, to blow apart settled ways of looking at the world, and, yes, force them into mental worlds that disturb,” the historical perspective offers a more profound reason for optimism.