Is This the One Thing that Stops the Chatterers from Chattering?

I sat down curious. I got up stumped. Why didn’t the usual conservative and progressive websites and magazines have anything to say about this momentous event? I’m wondering if the topic is too touchy even for the most brazen of cultural commentators.

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Remembering…

Here’s what we know: A new lynching memorial opened this week in Montgomery, Alabama. The mainstream press covered it in detail: NPR, New York Times, The Conversation, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post…newspapers and news outlets rushed to describe the wrenching attempt to remember the brutal legacy of racial violence in America.

Most of the coverage mixed outraged descriptions of the ugly history with hopeful intimations that this memorial might help open ancient festering sores to the bracing effects of sunlight. For me, as both a history teacher and a human being, I’m optimistic that the memorial might fulfill its goal of helping Americans recognize and deal with the fundamental historical facts of slavery, lynching, and their legacy.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH may recall, we’ve spent our fair share of time wondering why lynching is such a third-rail topic in American culture and education. Teachers have gotten in trouble for introducing the topic in their classrooms. I’ve wondered if we are simply too hamstrung to teach our children the truth about American history.

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Is it appropriate for children?

As a teacher, I have always had a difficult time helping students understand why people would send postcards to friends with cheerful mementoes of the lynchings they’d witnessed. It seemed like serial-killer behavior, yet it was fairly commonplace. (I won’t include the images here, because they are truly horrifying. With preparation, though, I’ve introduced students to the grim collection at Without Sanctuary. In particular, I challenged students to try to make sense of image #28.)

As I was flying home recently, I sat next to a very friendly woman. Once she found out I was a history nerd, she mentioned that she had recently seen news of the lynching memorial in Montgomery. And she was shocked. She was in her mid-fifties, she said, and she knew vaguely about racial violence and lynching, but the memorial opened her eyes to the numbers of victims and the peculiarly brutal nature of racial lynchings.

If more and more Americans can have similar experiences with the Montgomery memorial, I think we will have made significant but insufficient progress.

But here’s what I don’t understand: Why don’t the usual pundits have anything to say about it? This morning, I conducted a very unscientific survey of both left and right. I found almost no mention of the Montgomery memorial. Why not?

From the left, I looked at The Progressive, The Nation, and ThinkProgress. From the right, I searched American Conservative, Weekly Standard, National Review, and even Wallbuilders.

Of all those sources, only National Review had anything to say about the new memorial. In its pages, sociologist Gabriel Rossman offered an intelligent analysis of the way racial lynchings differed from other sorts of vigilante hangings.

Why don’t other progressive or conservative commentators have anything to say? Are they waiting for someone to say something provocative about the museum for them to react to? Did I just look in the wrong places?

I’d think this intensely provocative topic would attract a lot of culture-war commentary. Why hasn’t it?

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I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

While you’re not out there burning your retinas on today’s eclipse, take a moment to check out some of the stories that came across our desk this week:

Trump’s Charlottesville blather puts the GOP in crisis, from NYT.

What can we all agree on? Lefty Peter Greene agrees with Righty Checker Finn on the weakness of Queen Betsy’s school-reform plans.

Was James Damore right? Editors at Heterodox University review the research on gender difference and diversity.

What should colleges do about their Confederate statues?

…and it’s not just CEOs: One evangelical leader resigned from Trump’s advisory board after Charlottesville, though most are holding firm.

Hiring at the “Fundamentalist Harvard:” Wheaton is looking for a senior evangelical humanities schBart reading bibleolar. Who will it be?

Build up, instead of tearing down? The Equal Justice Initiative plans to build a memorial to the victims of lynching in Alabama.

Fundamentalist Pensacola Christian College kicks out a neo-Confederate student for participating in the Charlottesville protests.

The Third Rail in American History

It’s more than just “not easy to talk about.” Among the many controversial issues in American history, there’s nothing more difficult to address. A new educational outreach program tries to get people to talk about it, but I’m not very optimistic that it will have the kind of results it should. Why is this such a dynamite topic? I think it has something to do with pronouns. I’ll explain.

Let me back up a little bit and tell my story: A few years back I was invited to deliver a keynote address at a social-studies teachers’ conference at a large urban school district. They had invited me to speak because their annual theme was “Teaching Controversial Issues in US History.” I was delighted. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, I obsess over such questions.equal justice initiative

A few weeks before the conference, I was talking with the planners about my talk. I told them I planned to include a discussion of the topic of lynching. I planned to lead a workshop for teachers about the intense difficulties of teaching American students about it. I planned to share resources with them and get them to share their experiences.

The planners blanched. No way, they said. Not that they prohibited me from going ahead, but they told me that even mentioning the word “lynching” would cause immediate uproar. Let me repeat: This was a meeting of social-studies teachers. This was a group of people who taught history all day every day. And, in the opinion of people who knew them best, they would not tolerate a discussion of the topic of lynching.

It’s not just my experiences. A while back, an elementary teacher got in trouble in Florida for using a coloring book that featured an image of a lynching. It was considered too controversial to teach children about the history of lynching.

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Too much knowledge?

Right now, I’m not interested in questions of free speech and anti-intellectualism. Rather, I’m concerned with the bigger question: Why is it so impossible to talk about lynching? Why is it so controversial to teach this topic in American classrooms?

It’s not because smart people aren’t trying to get us to talk about it. And it’s not because there aren’t good teaching materials out there. The Equal Justice Initiative has been trying to address this problem for a while now. They recently released their online platform to teach about lynching and the history of racial violence in America.

Will it get more teachers to talk about lynching? I wish I could be more optimistic. I think the problem is more deeply rooted than it might seem. It goes all the way down to the grammatical level. When most of us talk about history, that is, we talk about it in ways that make it very difficult to calmly consider the history of racial violence. If we’re talking about the Trail of Tears, for example, depending on who we are, we say things like, “We forced them to move;” or “They pushed us off our land.”

So when it comes to talking about lynching, we can’t teach students about it without saying things like, “We terrorized the African American community with whippings, burnings, and hangings;” or, “We have always been attacked when we tried to assert our rights.” We can’t teach the history without confronting students’ own moral culpability.

Please don’t get me wrong: I believe it is important to acknowledge and address historical culpability. But that is an effort that can and should be separated from historical education. I want students of all ages to know and understand the true history of these United States. As I’ve argued in the case of other controversial topics such as evolution education, I believe we can do that separately from a moral campaign (which I also happen to support) to address the grievous racial injustices that have always been part of American society and history.

Too often, the only times the history of lynching has been addressed has been as part of an effort at political indoctrination. That is, left-leaning historians have taught about it as a way to show that America has always teetered on the edge of racial apocalypse. Right-leaners have downplayed the importance of the subject, suggesting that such “unfortunate” parts of American history don’t really tell the whole story. Most often, as with every controversial topic, history teachers just politely ignore the subject. That’s more than a shame.

Burying the painful history of lynching in layers of ignorance and euphemism will not make it go away. We need to teach students the real history of this country. And we can do that without wrapping it in layers of ideology and indoctrination.

Harvard Brings Lynching Back

Have college campuses welcomed a new generation of lynch mobs? It is a disturbing question raised recently by Harvard Law School Professor Janet Halley in the pages of the Harvard Law Review.

New home of the academic lynch mob?

New home of the academic lynch mob?

Last November, Halley publicly critiqued Harvard’s new policy for handling accusations of sexual assault. Under pressure from the federal Office of Civil Rights, Harvard and many other schools, Halley charged, felt

immense pressure to decide flimsy, weak, doubtful and difficult cases favorably to complainants, or face the wrath of a government agency that can cut off all federal funding to the entire institution.

In her commentary in the Harvard Law Review, Halley takes her argument a step further. How can we decide cases of alleged sexual assault, Halley asks, when policy is decided more by emotion than by reason? As she asks, new policies at many schools include

a commitment to the idea that women should not and do not bear any responsibility for the bad things that happen to them when they are voluntarily drunk, stoned, or both. This commitment cuts women off — in theory and in application — from assuming agency about their own lives. Since when was that a feminist idea?

More disturbing, Halley raises the obvious but horrifying parallel. In America’s brutal history, there is plenty of precedent for what can happen when those accused of sexual assault have no legal right to defend themselves. We call it lynching. As a new report from the Equal Justice Initiative makes painfully clear, America’s white population often brutalized and murdered African American men on the merest whiff of accusations.

Is it hyperbole to suggest that today’s campus-rape rules threaten to bring back such lynch-mob mentalities? The danger, Professor Halley suggests, is that colleges are under intense pressure to convict someone accused of sexual assault, even if there is not enough evidence to do so. She cites a widely publicized case from Hobart and William Smith Colleges. In that case, the college decided that it did not have enough evidence to charge anyone with sexual assault, in spite of ample evidence that a rape had occurred.

Halley does not suggest that the victim was lying or making it up. But she worries that colleges will feel pressure to convict someone in such cases, even when there is not enough evidence to do so. In this case, Halley argues that the rush to bring justice for the victim blinds us to the rights of the accused. As she puts it,

the Colleges had to assign blame to one or more of their students despite their complete lack of direct evidence about which of them actually deserved it.

Halley wonders if such policies will bring lynching back. She writes,

American racial history is laced with vendetta-like scandals in which black men are accused of sexually assaulting white women that become reverse scandals when it is revealed that the accused men were not wrongdoers at all.

These are difficult charges to hear, much less evaluate. After all, the more obvious moral challenge facing colleges is not the violent history of lynching, but the shameful history of ignoring the pleas of victims of sexual assault. For decades, universities—including the evangelical schools I’m studying these days—covered up campus rape in an ill-conceived quest to preserve their reputations as safe havens for young people.

Nevertheless, these are vital questions we must ask. Do Professor Halley’s worries have merit? Are colleges these days—in an understandable rush to correct past abuses—heading too far in the other direction? Must the rights of the accused be protected with the same vigor as the rights of the accuser?

What Do You Want Your 7-Year Old to Learn about Lynching?

A story yesterday from Jacksonville, Florida raises some difficult questions about what we want to teach our children.

According to News4Jax.com, a parent of a second grader complained at the coloring book his child brought home.  The coloring book, “Who Was Jim Crow?” by edhelper.com, included some disturbing racial imagery.  Not least shocking was a picture of a crowd lynching a victim.

Image source: News4Jax.com

Image source: News4Jax.com

As a historian, I think we need to teach young people the sometimes-disturbing story of America’s past.  But this sort of classroom material raises all sorts of questions:

  • How old do Americans need to be to learn about racial stereotyping?
  • How should students be taught about America’s history of racial violence?
  • Should teachers be using cheap on-line teaching materials like this?  Even if the school board approved them?
  • Is this an example of racial political correctness gone wild?  Or is this an example of classroom racism?
  • Can offensive racial stereotyping ever make good teaching materials?