There are racist conversations, and then there are conversations about racism.
There are men like Donald Sterling, the embattled NBA owner on the verge of losing his franchise after someone recorded and then broadcast his hateful, bigoted rant against blacks and Latinos.
And then there are men like Alan Barron, a Monroe middle-school teacher who has become both a target and a cause celebre in recent days after he was suspended and investigated for presenting a visually jarring history lesson on American racism to a class. The Monroe News reported:
Mr. Barron, 59, was placed on paid administrative leave almost two weeks ago after an assistant principal sat in on his history class while Mr. Barron was discussing the Jim Crow racial segregation laws. As part of the instruction, he showed a video of how white people back then used blackface to imitate African Americans during what they considered entertainment in the 1800s.
According to parents whose children are in the eighth- grade class, the administrator thought the lesson plan was offensive and racist. Mr. Barron was suspended the next day. Adrienne Aaron’s husband is African American, and their child was in the class. She said Mr. Barron simply was showing the students what occurred in history. She said her daughter was not offended and felt the subject needs to be discussed.
“She was more offended that they stopped the video,” Mrs. Aaron said. “It had nothing to do with racism. History is history. We need to educate our kids to see how far we’ve come in America. How is that racism?”
Admittedly, I wasn’t in Barron’s classroom the day he offered his presentation so I don’t know for sure what exactly upset his boss. I don’t know what words Barron spoke to go along with the visuals, and I suppose I can’t say with certainty how he dealt with the kids’ reaction to his video.
But with his students rallying behind him and no evidence whatsoever that Barron did anything wrong, I feel far more inclined to praise the man than pillory him.
Racism permeates every aspect of American life. The specter of race stains nearly every topic that flows through our national dialogue—even as that same dialogue too often tries to pretend as if race is somehow negligible.
Barron, a teacher of 36 years who was set to retire after this school year, not only chose not to avert his eyes to the ugliness of our racial history but he also dared to open the eyes of the young people in his charge. How else, after all, are the heirs of this nation supposed to move forward, supposed to make change, if they don’t know where we’ve been and what we continue to struggle against? (Isn’t that the point of a history class, after all?)
How else can we expect them to be better, to continue any effort to heal the wounds that we so constantly re-open if they aren’t first allowed to survey the damage and run their fingers along our long, nasty national scars?
How else can they learn the lessons that history has to teach if they are denied that history, however repulsive and embarrassing and disgraceful it may be?
Racism shames America, as it should. But shame is no justification for willful ignorance or national amnesia. History isn’t to be cherry picked or or glossed over or reduced to feel-good mythology, not even for kids, especially not for kids.
Racism infects nearly every facet of American life, and young Americans are not immune. From racist tweets from adolescent fans of the Hunger Games to college-age partygoers humiliating themselves in blackface, we see all sorts of examples of how the idiocy of older generations gets reflected back at us by their kids.
And that’s all the more reason why those who try to enlighten should be commended, not silenced.
Racism has disfigured this nation something awful. And while I don’t know fully how we fix ourselves, I do know that we don’t help matters by avoiding the mirrors that people like Barron try to hold up.