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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Put into perspective

by John Brummett | August 31, 2021 at 3:00 a.m.

So, there are these four things. Some people lump them. But they're different.

One is The 1619 Project, a Pulitzer Prize-winning project of The New York Times that has been designed for possible classroom presentation, but is not widely used that way and not at all in Arkansas.

It holds that America's real founding was in 1619 when the colonial economy was presented with the first slaves. We owe all our wealth to our original racist sin and slaves, in other words. It is arguable but a tad inflammatory in grounding the country in evil.

Another is critical race theory, a 40-year-old educational construct holding that ongoing racism in America is imposed through our system of law and public policy. It's not taught in Arkansas, either, at least as in a teacher saying, "Today, children, open your critical race theory texts to Page 1."

Conservatives say critical race theory is itself racist because it insists on pitting black against white. Progressives and education advocates say it's ... well ... you know ... true.

Then there is a more general acknowledgement--not formal educational theory, but an observation of the obvious--that racism and its vestiges persist in America. Conservative state legislators are filing and passing bills providing that history teachers shall not upset white children by teaching anything like that.

This notion of lingering and embedded racism doesn't sound greatly different from the themes of the Our Town program in which I participated in Little Rock in the 1990s. It was explained to us, as an example, that systemic racism means a police department with a Black police chief could still be seen as racist by the Black community.

You think? There's this town called Little Rock ...

I remember an Our Town session in which a Black man expressed dismay that a white newspaper columnist--I didn't do it that time--had said the racial makeup of the Little Rock schools was more than 50 percent Black "and getting worse."

Worse? Did anybody say the private schools were getting worse by becoming whiter?

Then there is the fourth and final thing, much more narrow and specific. It's grant money from the Walmart Foundation and Walton Family Foundation to advance the causes in schools of heightened sensitivity to diversity, inclusion and equity. The Fayetteville School District is using such funds for a five-year initiative.

A group calling itself Informed Parents of Fayetteville Schools--which overlaps the anti-mask minority in town--resists this five-year initiative. It says the real purpose is liberal indoctrination. The group alleges that the five-year plan is in fact critical race theory.

But it isn't, a fact that got put in perspective during an uncommonly crowded citizens' participation portion of the Fayetteville School Board meeting last week.

First, there was Angie Maxwell, the Diane Blair Chair in Southern Studies at the University of Arkansas and main author of the acclaimed "Long Southern Strategy." The book details the tactical and strategic mastery of Republicans over recent decades in taking advantage of race and other resentments to turn the South solidly red.

Maxwell said she was speaking only as a mom of a middle-school child in the Fayetteville schools when she praised the equity effort. She decried the cynical manipulation by seasoned political operatives (conservative Republicans, I'd make clear) to exploit the overbroad application of those three words, critical race theory, to capitalize on "trepidation, anger and resentment" about demographic and cultural change.

It's the kind of thing that modern Republicans have done regularly. They made inheritance taxes death taxes. They made active government socialism. Now they make any racial acknowledgement critical race theory. It's mostly for the next election.

A later speaker was a Black woman named Danyelle Sargent Musselman. She spoke on behalf of her 11-year-old daughter.

Musselman is a noted former sports reporter and anchorperson for ESPN and Fox Sports. She is married to a man prominent in athletic coaching.

She told of her experience as a target of racial hate and of being afraid to talk about ugly incidents because people in her mostly white neighborhood didn't talk about such things.

And she spoke of today's "micro-aggressions" against her daughter that she said she wouldn't be able to address as effectively had she not herself completed the kind of training the Fayetteville initiative offers.

"It is impossible to be empathetic about that which you are ignorant," Musselman said.

Education is supposed to be all about not being ignorant. Or at least that was the general concept until cynical political operatives got hold of those three magically expansive words, critical race theory.

So, it's good to see highly educated and prominent people--and a school district and its board--standing strong against political exploitation and for actual education and race-consciousness.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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