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Protesting the Little Rock Nine

White segregationist demonstrators protesting at the admission of nine African American students known as the Little Rock Nine to Central High School in 1959. Their 1957 enrollment was followed by the Little Rock Crisis, in which the students were initially prevented from entering the racially segregated school by Orval Faubus, the Governor of Arkansas; they finally  attended after the intervention of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Photo by: Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Wake the Children Sleeping: James Baldwin's White Fragility Meets Critical Race Theory and Freaks Right Out

Abby Zimet

Fast running out of boogeymen and deranged conspiracies - Dr. Seuss, Mr./Ms. Potato Head, trans girls playing sports, Karl Marx and his evil spawn antifa, Italy and/or dead Hugo Chavez flipping elections, cancel culture warriors of any flavor - and bereft of principles or policies, a flailing GOP has feverishly glommed onto Critical Race Theory as the latest Scary Threat to American democracy, in the process miraculously failing to realize it's actually them. A 40-year-old, once-obscure academic concept developed at Harvard, CRT acknowledges the fundamental role of racism, and its accompanying inequality, in every aspect of American society, from legal systems and social structures to economics and education; common examples are the ways racism led to housing redlining in the 1930s, and still informs today's college admissions, income inequity and incarceration rates. But confronting the systems behind white supremacy, the narratives white people tell themselves to justify it, the way power and privilege work to support it can create fear - economic, social, cultural, racial - in those threatened by any change in the status quo, especially when they're busy trying to suppress the votes of those who would benefit. It's a lot - complex, nuanced, potentially hazardous - for a party of morons like Marjorie Taylor Greene who conflates Democrats with Nazis 'cause, see, they both have "Socialist" in their names, sort of. Thus flattened by idiotic branding, some say the end game is "to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think 'critical race theory.'" In those wee little brains, little wonder CRT becomes "any conversation about race I don't like," "hostile to white people," and "teaching kids to hate each other and our country" - which is the greatest, even though for centuries it did buy, sell, own, rape, abuse, exterminate and otherwise oppress hundreds of thousands of people who, according to a social construct, had the "wrong" color skin.

And so the banning begins. GOP lawmakers in up to a dozen states - Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Idaho, Tennessee, Georgia, all the way up to New Hampshire and Rhode Island - have proposed or approved bills to forbid the teaching of "divisive concepts" like systemic racism. Leading the charge are some of the usual yahoo suspects. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has not only banned CRT and anything that makes a student "feel discomfort, guilt (or anguish) on account of his/her race or sex," but also created  The 1836 Project to "promote patriotic education" about the state's triumphant fight for liberty over tyrannical Mexicans, prompting push-back from progressives urging people to "Forget the Alamo" and focus on the myths, lies and racism "baked into" Texas history. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, enabled by his hand-picked Board of Education, has rallied to the cause of whitewashing history - aka "maintaining the integrity of Florida's academic standards" - by both banning CRT and mandating, "Instruction may not utilize material from the (New York Times) 1619 Project" or other sources that "distort historical events." Constantly appearing on Fox News, which has mentioned CRT 1,300 times in the last three-and-a-half months, DeSantis charged a theory that recognizes racism in American history is "nonsense ideology" that teaches kids to attack cops and hate each other, and besides 87% of the kids are illiterate and he loves his country. Whew. In Alabama, political reporter Kyle Whitmire offered a master class in decoding the rampant babble when he asked Rep. Chris Pringle, the lawmaker who wants to ban CRT, what it is. "It basically teaches that certain children are inherently bad people because of the color of their skin, period," Pringle said. Asked how the theory is used, Pringle said, "These people, when they were doing the training programs - and the government - if you didn't buy into what they taught you...the white male executives are sent to a three-day re-education camp..." Anyway, "This is still the greatest country that's ever, ever been in the history of the world." Not, he adds, like "communist countries."

This is also evidently the most fragile, defensive, hidebound, steeped-in-denial country that's ever, ever been, one so afraid of or shamed by its own history it can only ask who, what, when but not how, why, can we do better? In 1979, Joseph Lovett, a producer at ABC's 20/20, was assigned a profile of James Baldwin to mark the publication of the great writer's 19th book, Just Above My Head. Lovett was "beyond thrilled"; he viewed Baldwin as "brilliant and brave and speaking to the moment of history that we were all living in." But the interview by Sylvia Chase never aired, because, "Who wants to listen to a Black gay has-been?" Over 40 years later, the video has resurfaced. It shows Baldwin relaxed at home with family, talking to kids in Harlem, behind the scenes at rehearsals for his play The Amen Corner. It also reveals Baldwin's blistering, eloquent, weary awareness of an "American sense of reality (dictated) by what Americans are trying to avoid" - and, amidst today's hysteria about acknowledging our racism and the slavery Baldwin deems "a curse on this country," how little has changed. Asked about life for blacks in America, Baldwin says, "It is a price that this republic exacts. On any black man or woman walking. It is a crime, and I've paid for that crime in my life." He reaches over to a young nephew. "They will not do to him," he says, rage in his voice, "what they failed to do to me." Above all, he speaks of white fear, then as now. "White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of black people - a tremendous uneasiness,” he says. “They don’t know what the Black face hides... Of course, what it’s hiding is American history. What it’s hiding is what white people know they have done, and what they like doing. White people know very well one thing; it’s the only thing they have to know...They know they would not like to be Black here." Everything else "Is a lie." 


Never Aired: Profile on James Baldwin ABC’s 20/20, 1979 from A Closer Look on Vimeo.


Abby Zimet

Abby Zimet

Abby has written CD's Further column since 2008. A longtime, award-winning journalist, she moved to the Maine woods in the early 70s, where she spent a dozen years building a house, thinning the carrots, hauling too much water, experiencing true if ragged community, and writing. Having come of political age during the Vietnam War, she has long been involved in women's, labor, anti-war, social justice and refugee rights issues. 

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