We have seen school boards and state legislatures across the nation move to ban books as well as censor and limit the teaching of history and issues that apparently make some students and their parents “uncomfortable,” particularly regarding the experiences and cultures of African Americans.
As Axios has reported, the effect of some of this legislation means that in certain cases teachers can mention Jackie Robinson but are prohibited from talking about why Black players had been banned from Major League Baseball; they can mention Marvin Gaye but not discuss the meaning of his song What’s Going on; or they could mention Tulsa, Oklahoma or Rosewood, Florida but not mention the massacres of African Americans that happened there. South Dakota Governor Kristi Noemi has introduced legislation banning the teaching of racial atrocities, and Florida and Mississippi are considering legislation that bands teaching material that makes students uncomfortable about their racial identities.
In short, teaching our nation’s historical truths is being banned, as the Republican misinformation campaign, the repression of real facts in favor of alternative ones is waged in our schools.
And there seems to be little to no consideration given to how many students mighty actually be made quite uncomfortable by the exclusion of this material and these discussions.
Meanwhile, as Black History Month got underway with the onset of February, 14 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) received bomb threats, making the students, faculty, and staff at these institutions targets of domestic terrorism, even, we need to say it, genocide.
Indeed, let’s call it what it is and recognize the magnitude of what’s happening in this country.
If we take seriously the United Nation’s 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,” then we understand genocide as certain “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” Such acts include not just the killing of members of the group but acts that inflict “serious bodily or mental harm on members of the group,” as well as “deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part.”
The words of Saigan Boyd, a student at Spelman College, one of the HBCUs targeted, make
clear, for sure, the mental harm of this terrorism and constant threat to her life. She told CNN:
“It makes me realize how there are still these terrorists that are trying to stop minorities from advancing or just getting a simple education from a predominantly Black institution. I’m just ultimately tired of dealing with this level of unsolicited hatred. I’m just tired of being terrorized like how my grandparents were.”
The hateful suppression of the history and experience of African Americans in the nation’s public schools, we have to recognize, is part of what enables genocide, promoting the erasure of a people and their culture and, by extension, devaluing their lives.
This devaluation has abounded, of course, in Republican responses to President Biden’s announcement that he would nominate a Black woman to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court.
Mississippi’s Republican Senator Roger Wicker, for example, recently told a radio talk show host:
“The irony is the Supreme Court, at the very same time, is hearing cases about this sort of affirmative racial discrimination and while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota. The majority of the court might be saying, writ large, it’s unconstitutional. We’ll see how that irony works out.”
Now why does Wicker assume that whichever Black woman Biden nominates will have been the beneficiary of some kind of racial quota? Well, because he clearly believes a Black woman couldn’t distinguish herself in the legal world on the basis of her own merits. His prejudicial thinking already devalues any Black woman and imagines her as inferior to whites.
Again this devaluation of the lives of a group of people, this dehumanization, is what enables genocide. And the cruel and tragic irony is that thinking such as Wicker’s is what provokes the racist terrorism we saw perpetrated against the 14 HBCUs on February 1. Clearly the racists don’t really believe African Americans are inferior or incapable, as we see in the fact that they want to keep them from receiving an education. They’re simply motivated by a hate that wants to deprive African Americans of the ability to participate in the political process and civil society of America.
And take Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s comments on his podcast, when he called Biden’s announcement “offensive”:
“The fact that he’s willing to make a promise at the outset, that it must be a Black woman, I gotta say that’s offensive. You know, you know Black women are what, 6% of the US population? He’s saying to 94% of Americans, ‘I don’t give a damn about you, you are ineligible.’”
Again, Cruz, like the schools banning books and limiting what can be taught, is effectively erasing the reality of American history, refusing to acknowledge the history of exclusion from these institutions African Americans have endured.
Is it really his position that throughout all of American history a Black woman has simply never been qualified to serve on the Supreme Court? Or, does he too simply believe Black women are inferior and unworthy to serve on the Supreme Court.
Let’s try the latter. But it is his erasure of this history that allows him to continue to argue for the exclusion of Black women in the present.
And this racist erasure of history, which underwrites and enables genocide and terrorism, is not new to the Supreme Court in recent history.
Think back to June 2013 when the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that determined which cities, counties, and states needed to seek approval from the Department of Justice before changing their voting laws. When first implemented, the Voting Rights Act targeted particular locales with a high degree of racial polarization and a record of institutionalized racially discriminatory practices. The Supreme Court’s majority ruling, written by Chief Justice Roberts, rationalized that the provision was not based on “current conditions,” suggesting that racial discrimination and inequality are now relics of the past in the identified regions. This ruling gave rise to Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s famous quip in her dissent that the ruling was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.” Her dissent went on to rattle off eight instances of race-based voter discrimination between 1990 and 2006 in states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, states previously subjected to the conditions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Roberts’ opinion relied on the absolutely bogus sociological analysis that racism simply wasn’t severe enough in America to justify pre-clearance, calling it an “extraordinary” measure created to “address an extraordinary problem.” He claimed “the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.”
The past week has telescoped America’s history of racism and genocide in the intensest of ways, highlighting too that it’s the highest governing offices in the land that are promulgating the most virulent racism and leading the genocidal charge.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.