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VOL. 45 | NO. 31 | Friday, July 30, 2021

Nothing is black and white when discussing race

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Two opposite schools of thought compete when it comes to the topic of race in America. One holds that we should talk about it a lot because of the corrosive and continuing impact of racism in our society.

The other contends that we shouldn’t talk about it at all because it’s divisive.

I find myself somewhere in between the two views, drifting slightly at times in one direction or the other.

The current animating factor in the discussion is a concept known by the vague term “critical race theory.” You’ve perhaps read that Tennessee legislators went to great, last-minute efforts to ban the teaching of it in public schools here.

Tennessee isn’t alone. At least five other states have taken similar actions, with some 20 others considering it.

You’d think that critical race theory is the gravest threat facing our society.

“Racially motivated propaganda,” Marsha Blackburn has called it. Our senior senator is not given to entertaining points of view at variance with her own.

Tennessee legislators didn’t ban it by name, but by implied description. The measure they passed threatens to withhold state funding from schools that teach, among other things:

• That one “race or sex is inherently superior to another”

• That race or sex determines “moral character”

• That some people should be discriminated against based on race or sex, or that Tennessee or the U.S. “is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”

For good measure, funding would also be withheld from schools “promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government.”

I’m pretty sure that the violent overthrow of the United States government is not being advocated in Tennessee public schools. Nor, I suspect, is any notion of racial superiority being promoted.

No, that’s just cover language. What the legislators really want is to prevent any acknowledgment of the extent of racism in this country.

Not all the legislators feel that way. But most of the ones who look like me do. They argue that the best approach to dealing with race is to somehow be “colorblind.” As if that were possible.

It’s naive – or worse – to try to ignore the impact that race has had, and continues to have, on life in this country. The question is how to deal with it.

A bare minimum would be to recognize the uneven impact that laws can have on different groups of people and take steps to remedy those inequities. A frequently cited example involves disparities in sentencing laws for crack versus powder cocaine, which led to nine times as many Black people as white people going to prison for cocaine violations.

In my understanding, acknowledging and rectifying that sort of injustice is what critical race theory was designed to do. That’s why it’s taught in law schools.

I approach this whole topic with considerable caution, fully aware that a person of my skin tone, advanced years and Southern upbringing might not be considered an unbiased voice. And I confess to not being totally immune to the influence of those factors.

For example, I disagree with the decision by some news organizations to capitalize Black, but not white or brown or any other color when referring to race. And I can appreciate why some white people from disadvantaged backgrounds who have had to work long and hard to succeed bristle at the concept of white privilege.

Maybe “privilege” is too contentious. It’s more like a free pass, an exemption from the prevailing form of discrimination. We white folks get that exemption through the accident of birth. Doesn’t mean we don’t face other obstacles, varied and complex. But the free pass on skin color is a biggie.

I was reminded of that the other day in the grocery store parking lot when I was approached by a young boy, maybe 8 or 10, selling candy for some school project. He was about as winsome a kid as I’ve ever encountered, smiling and telling me how he was going to be the next Tom Brady someday. I applaud dreams like that. I wished him well.

But I also know that, if he does succeed, he’ll do it despite having skin a lot darker than Brady’s. And, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream notwithstanding, that some people will always think less of him because of that pigment.

It’s the kind of thing worth thinking about, even if we’re not talking about it.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com

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