Carefully Taught

Does systemic racism exist in New Hampshire? | Op-ed | sentinelsource.comIn 1949, when South Pacific debuted on Broadway, few extolled its messages concerning systemic racial prejudice as portrayed by American military service personnel. That portrayal was not limited to the military but intended to reflect a more commonly held view within the United States. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein were not known for expertise in education or race relations. But, in one moving scene, USMC Lieutenant Joe Cable (of Philadelphia) reveals an insight, a kind of epiphany, through his love for Liat, the daughter of a Tongan woman:

You’ve got to be taught

To hate and fear,

You’ve got to be taught

From year to year,

It’s got to be drummed

In your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

Before you are six or seven or eight,

To hate all the people your relatives hate,

You’ve got to be carefully taught!

The lyrics are a powerful reminder of the way in which the views of the dominant culture of the United States are transmitted by stereotypical characterizations of others as different. There is no suggestion that “taught” is limited to schooling; yet the process commences “before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight.” The teaching occurs “from year to year” and it is undertaken “carefully,” one presumes, so as not to offend openly.

The players are US military men and women from across the nation, small town origins such as Little Rock and Princeton, stationed in foreign locales where the populations are decidedly not small-town America. The message of South Pacific was amplified in 1958 with the opening of the film version, now reaching vast audiences beyond Broadway and London’s East End. Ensign (nurse) Nellie Forbush’s (Little Rock) unconscious reasons for rejecting her paramour, Emile De Beque, because his former wife was Tongan, are a prominent theatrical device, resolved only upon her realization that the earlier relationship, which produced two mixed-race children, would not corrupt her all-American moral code.

South Pacific offers a contemporary lesson as political debates rage over critical race theory (CRT) in school curricula. Now, politicians including Virginia’s new governor, Glenn Youngkin, have adopted placebo criticisms opposing the teaching of “divisive” themes in schools because CRT is, in fact, not being taught in Virginia schools. Surely, no responsible citizen wishes to have divisive material taught in schools. The questions arise from the lyrics regarding who is teaching and where the instruction is occurring. And, if it is being carefully taught, it must be assumed it is being carefully learned.

Critics assert that CRT encourages (inculcates, say some) negative self-stereotypes about whites. If, however, racism is being carefully taught in schools, what remedy or antidote exists? If racism is being carefully taught at home, those lessons are virtually immune from prescriptions originating outside the home. Strategically, if the country is adamant that “all men are created equal” and public schools are a crucial medium of the transmission of cultural values, inclusion of curricula to counter carefully taught “values” becomes a priority, even a necessity. Society as a whole has a deep, vested interest in education, public and private, sharing the responsibility for outcomes with parents and students.   

It may very well be that CRT is not the best choice to accomplish this mission. On the other hand, banning divisive themes presents no solution and merely represents a political ploy for votes.

It may very well be that CRT is not the best choice to accomplish this mission. On the other hand, banning divisive themes presents no solution either and merely represents a political ploy for votes. Eliminating divisive themes only offers a deflection from the reality while consoling those who, for the moment, insist upon deciding curricular content as a right. Political leaders choosing sides in this debate are the best evidence of the absence of critical thinking. The bait-and-switch swindle over CRT treats parents like a Hitchcock audience, that is ultimately astonished to learn that the Maltese falcon is a MacGuffin, not the heart of the misdirection surrounding Sam Spade’s investigation into the murder of his partner.

Carefully taught from year to year, drummed into little ears at six, or seven, or eight, represents an insidious meme that negates the very values the United States publicly boasts, including having fought a Civil War over slavery and a world war to thwart a dangerous political movement based on race. We may not be able to teach our way past racism but, at the same time, we need to get past the embarrassment it causes to recognize it. That requires some critical thinking.

The governor of Florida is urging adoption of proposed legislation that would prohibit the teaching of material that makes people feel discomfort about race. The theory here is that CRT or training in workplace discrimination requires the denigration of whites. Whether it is divisiveness in Virginia or discomfort in Florida, the difficulty in directly addressing racism is as much emotional as it is political.

Efforts to abolish CRT or perceived divisiveness in schools without provision of curricula countervailing racism can reasonably be deemed permitting another form of division to prevail. That, too, requires critical thinking, a quality notably absent in the politisphere. Developing school curricula as an antidote to educate and inform young students about the divisiveness of racism requires a level of critical thinking among proponents that is at least equal to that of those who simply wish to avoid such thoughts.



Categories: CIVIL RIGHTS, cultural icons, Issues, racial symbols

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