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Critical race theory controversy has decades-old roots | GUEST COMMENTARY

By Fred L. Pincus For The Baltimore Sun | Nov 26, 2021 at 10:02 AM

FILE - In this May 18, 2021, file photo, a teacher, center, and her third grade students wear face masks and are seated at proper social distancing spacing during as she conducts her class in Rye, N.Y. In response to a push for culturally responsive teaching that gained steam following last year's police killing of George Floyd, Republican lawmakers and governors have championed legislation to limit the teaching of material that explores how race and racism influence American politics, culture and law. The measures have become law in Tennessee, Idaho and Oklahoma and bills have been introduced in over a dozen other states. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File)
FILE – In this May 18, 2021, file photo, a teacher, center, and her third grade students wear face masks and are seated at proper social distancing spacing during as she conducts her class in Rye, N.Y. In response to a push for culturally responsive teaching that gained steam following last year’s police killing of George Floyd, Republican lawmakers and governors have championed legislation to limit the teaching of material that explores how race and racism influence American politics, culture and law. The measures have become law in Tennessee, Idaho and Oklahoma and bills have been introduced in over a dozen other states. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, File) (Mary Altaffer/AP)

The current controversy over critical race theory in the schools is nothing new. Thirty-seven years ago, I published an article titled “Book Banning and the New Right: Censorship in the Public Schools.”

In the introduction, I wrote: “The charges made by the new right are all too familiar: Many prize-winning works of contemporary fiction are said to be obscene, immoral and too negative. Textbooks are said to devote too much space to criticizing racism, sexism and other social problems and not enough space to ‘emphasizing the positive,’ especially with regard to patriotism and the nuclear family.”

Sound familiar?

When history repeats itself, of course, it’s not exactly the same. In the ‘80s during the Reagan administration, the boogeyman was “secular humanism,” something that most Americans had never heard of. New right conservatives harshly criticized “godless” schools and insisted that biology textbooks should include sections on creationism along with evolution.

The 2021 boogeyman is critical race theory, something most Americans, including teachers and progressives, had never heard of until it was popularized by former President Donald Trump and his supporters. Today’s conservatives are concerned with books and curriculum materials that distort history (in their view) and make whites feel guilty and uncomfortable.

The new right of the 1980s was the forerunner of today’s Trump conservatives. Unlike traditional conservatives, such as Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater, the new right highlighted social issues in addition to limited government. White, evangelical Christians became politicized through Rev. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s. The Heritage Foundation, the think tank of the new right formed in the 1970s, emphasized getting things done rather than simply stimulating debate.

In many ways, both conservatives and progressives are stronger and more polarized today than in the past. In 1980, Black people and women were just beginning to influence the school curriculum. Black- and women’s- studies were only 10 years old, and many liberals were still ambivalent about diversifying the curriculum. Gay- and trans- rights were not yet on the agenda. New right critics were starting to emerge from marginality and gain some credibility among mainstream conservatives.

Today, especially outside of the South, diversity and inclusion are current buzzwords and have made important inroads to the curriculum. Black, Hispanic and women’s history months are widely recognized. Racist and sexist language has been significantly reduced, at least in the classroom. Some inclusion policies are quite modest but some forms of diversity have been institutionalized. We have social movements to thank for this.

More contemporary conservatives, never happy with diversity and inclusion, are increasingly rebelling. Emboldened by Donald Trump’s attack on critical race theory, they have gotten elected to school boards and attended meetings en masse. They rail against critical race theory without being able to say exactly what it is. The Heritage Foundation offers a short guide: “How to Identify Critical Race Theory.”

Critical race theory, that analyzes how the U.S. legal system has been permeated by systemic racism, has been around since the late 1980s. Credit for weaponizing the term goes to Christopher Rufo, who began writing articles about it in July 2020 for the conservative Manhattan Institute. Mr. Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox New show on Sept. 2, 2020, and is credited with helping Mr. Trump with the anti-critical race theory executive order the former president signed in September 2020.

Media Matters, a media watchdog group, found that Fox News mentioned critical race theory only 12 times between June and August 2020. It shot up to 69 times in September that year, after Rufo appeared on Fox News. April 2021 found 107 mentions, shooting up to 901 in June 2021.

Conservatives hit pay dirt when they started talking about parents’ rights in education. At least eight states have passed laws banning CRT in the schools and more are under consideration

As someone who has taught race relations at the college level for more than 40 years, I find it impossible to avoid using concepts like systemic racism or white privilege and still be accurate. Banning CRT is just an excuse to avoid teaching about racism, both historically and at the present moment.

Yes, some white people may become uncomfortable, and sometimes guilty, when learning the truth. I tell them: You, as an individual, are not responsible for the past, but you are responsible for what happens now and in the future.

Fred L. Pincus (www.fredlpincus.com) is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and the author of “Confessions of a Radical Academic: A Memoir” (Adelaide Books; 2020).

Can a white man teach about racism? I did my best for 44 years | COMMENTARY

By Fred L. Pincus For The Baltimore Sun | Jun 11, 2021 at 5:23 AM

Although I am a privileged, white male, I don’t feel guilty about the sordid history of racism in the United States. I do, however, feel responsible for fighting against injustice and trying to prevent it from continuing in the future.

In my actions, I try to be an ally to people of color — an anti-racist. I taught about racism at UMBC for 44 years before my retirement. I’ve written five books and dozens of articles on these topics. I’ve attended countless demonstrations and given thousands of dollars to local and national organizations that confront racism.

In short, I’m one of those academics the right-wing would like to ban from teaching. Recognizing how systemic racism is built into our history, economy and culture can be difficult to take in. Realizing that some of our basic beliefs are oversimplified, if not incorrect, can be painful. But it’s essential to get to the truth.

I still remember in the 1950s when my fourth-grade teacher said, “The Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery.” I went home and told my progressive parents. They flipped out and told me my teacher was wrong. This left me confused since this was the first time that I remember questioning something a teacher said. Of course, it wasn’t the last time.

When I started teaching race relations to undergraduates in the tumultuous year of 1968, I learned that I had to teach them the material but also bring students along gradually when things got touchy. If a white student would refer to “colored” people rather than “Black” people, I would gently try to explain how racial labels had changed. One of the biggest fears of white students at the time was to be called a racist. “Don’t feel guilty,” I’d say. “Learn from your mistakes.”

A Black male student once denounced me in front of the class saying that I, as a white person, had no right teaching about race relations to either white or Black students. Stunned, I tried to explain, but he would have none of it. I didn’t want to be seen as a racist either.

The student also refused to turn in an important assignment toward the end of the semester. I didn’t want to give him an F since he was a good student. Also, how would it look to fail an outspoken Black student in a race relations class? After asking a Black administrator to intervene, he finally turned in the assignment. I was relieved.

Eventually I learned to create safe spaces for students to discuss contentious racial issues. Since the course was an elective, I had very few conservative or overtly racist students, so it wasn’t difficult to keep the discussions civil. “Remember,” I’d say, “you can disagree with what someone says without attacking them as a person.”

Several decades into my teaching career, I told my class that prejudiced people use pejorative terms like the “N-word,” except that I said the word. A female Black student, said “You should never say that word.” Stunned again, I said, “I was only trying to say that prejudiced people say things like [N-word].” “See, you said it again even after I asked you not to,” she said.

I had no idea what to say, so I used my fallback position: “What does the rest of the class think?” We had a stimulating discussion of pejorative racial terms until I told them that I’d have to think about this and I’d let them know in the next class.

After much soul searching and discussions with colleagues, I realized I could make all the important points that I wanted to make without saying the actual word. I also wondered how many students over the past 25 years had the same feelings as this student but never said anything.

Later in my career, I started teaching graduate and undergraduate courses on diversity, adding the issues of gender, class and sexual orientation. Many students were horrified about what they learned and felt deeply troubled.

“You’re not responsible for what happened in the past,” I’d remind them, “but you are responsible for what you do or don’t do now.” This tone helped many students to learn painful truths.

Challenging students, both intellectually and emotionally, is a good thing if it’s done properly. Guilt and discomfort can be teachable moments — for the teachers, too — that lead to new ways of thinking and acting. The right-wing attempt to ban teaching about these issues will only permit miseducation to continue. It’s time to face the past so that we can make a better future.

Fred L. Pincus (pincus@umbc.edu) is an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at UMBC and the author of “Confessions of a Radical Academic: A Memoir.”

Social Distance: Then and Now
by Fred L. Pincus

(Portside.com, April 17, 2020)

With all the talk about social distancing during the last two months, I can’t help thinking about my graduate school days when I learned about the Social Distance Scale developed almost a century ago by sociologist Emory Bogardus.  Although the times and conceptions of social distance are quite different then and now, issues of racism, xenophobia, anxiety and fear connect the two.

Today, because of the COVID-19 threat, we are all encouraged to practice social distance, meaning keeping physical space from people to protect ourselves and others from the virus.  This makes sense to slow the spread of the virus.  Fortunately, the Trump administration is finally taking COVID-19 more seriously, sort of. Fear of getting sick and anxiety over staying healthy, but isolated, are rising.

In the 1920s, when Bogardus developed the Social Distance Scale, he was concerned with race and ethnic prejudice.  It was a time of immigration restrictions and legalized Jim Crow segregation, especially in the South.

Respondents were given a list of different race and ethnic groups and were asked to indicate “the most intimate relationship that you are willing to accept with a member of each of the groups indicated — as close relatives by marriage, as close personal friends, as neighbors on the same street, as co-workers in the same occupation, as citizens in the country, as only visitors in the country, or by excluding them from the country.” A score of 1 was given if an individual would accept someone from another group as close relatives by marriage (i.e., low social distance/low prejudice).  A score of 7 would be given if an individual would exclude someone from a different group from the country (i.e., high social distance/high prejudice).

In addition to measuring individual prejudice, Bogardus could also measure how different groups were seen by the general public.  People of color were generally given high social distance/high prejudice scores by the rest of the population as were many non-protestant, white immigrants to the United States.  They were seen as immoral, disease-carrying people who would disrupt American culture.  This reflected the immigration restrictions against Chinese and Japanese in the 1920s and the institutionalized racism against blacks.  Jews, Irish and Italians were seen as racially different and inferior to white Protestant Americans.  Fear of the “other” escalated.

Today, some aspects of the current pandemic policy also reflect the original social-distance-as-prejudice concept.  President Trump’s first response to the growing pandemic on January 21 was to ban travel from China where COVID-19 originated.  At the time, public health experts were critical of the president, saying other policies like testing, self-quarantine, increasing hospital capacity and not shaking hands were more important.  More recently, news outlets have shown that tens of thousands of people traveled to the United States from China, in spite of the ban.

President Trump announced the European travel ban March 12, although the United Kingdom and Ireland were inexplicably exempted from the ban in spite of the rising number of cases in these two countries.  (The ban was extended to the UK and Ireland several days later). American citizens and legal residents traveling from Europe, who could also bring the virus to the United States, were also exempted from the ban.  Later in the month, the Trump administration closed the border with Mexico and began deporting asylum-seekers who entered the country illegally without any due process. (Mexico had around 100 reported cases of COVID-19 on the time.)  Trump’s actions were motivated by xenophobic, tough-on-immigrants policy, including the Muslim ban in addition to his public health concerns?

The President and some other conservatives, also frequently refer to COVID-19 as the “foreign” or “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus even though it exists around the world. This helps to stir up xenophobic prejudice and practice.  Many Asian Americans, who have never been to China, are reporting being shunned on the streets or being accused of infecting white Americans.  How much of this is due to the fact that COVID-19 originated in China and how much is due to historical anti-Asian prejudice and discrimination as well as the current U.S. – China trade war?

On April 14, Trump announced the freezing of funds for the World Health Organization for causing the spread of the virus.  They were too cozy with China.

While we should continue to observe physical social distance to confront the pandemic, we should also be aware of how social-distance-as-prejudice creeps into the Trump administration’s public health policy and other “America First” policies.  It’s unfortunate that the Bogardus Social Distance Scale can still be used to measure racist attitudes almost a century since its inception.

Fred L. Pincus
Emeritus Professor of Sociology
University of Maryland Baltimore County

Connection and kindness — over Cap’n Crunch French toast

  By Fred Pincus Baltimore Sun | Dec 30, 2019 | 11:25 AM      

The Cap'n Crunch French Toast served at the Blue Moon Cafe in Fells Point.
The Cap’n Crunch French Toast served at the Blue Moon Cafe in Fells Point.(Michael Ares / Baltimore Sun)

With all the negativity in the country over the impeachment hearings, hate crimes, domestic terrorism and political polarization, it’s easy to forget that warm human interactions are still possible — even among people of different races.

After having my annual MRI at Johns Hopkins Hospital a few months ago to evaluate a slow-growing neuroendocrine tumor on my pancreas, Natalie, my wife, and I went to the Blue Moon Cafe in Fell’s Point for breakfast. We had to kill a few hours before seeing the oncologist who would give us the test results. I love the Cap’n Crunch French toast at the Blue Moon, but I wondered if we could be seated since the small restaurant was often crowded.

Luck wasn’t on our side — all the tables were filled and there would be a 20-minute wait. I hate waiting, even for Cap’n Crunch, so I turned to leave. As I opened the front door, I realized that Natalie was not behind me so I looked back and found her talking to a young black couple seated at a table for five. I knew she was asking if we could share their table. Although I often cringe at the idea of intruding on people’s personal space in restaurants, Natalie is bolder. They agreed to her request and she motioned me over.

We sat down, introduced ourselves and started chatting. Kevin ran a catering business and Kim was a hospice nurse. They were at least 30 years younger than us. Kim had just finished a week of bed rest during her pregnancy and was about to go back to work. I told them about my MRI and I also mentioned that I had taught at the University of Maryland Baltimore County before retiring. Kim asked what I taught and when I told her my specialty was the sociology of race relations, she described a diversity training session at her workplace. Natalie talked about her teaching and research about women and crime and they seemed very interested.

The conversation was friendly and pleasant. Since they had already ordered, their food arrived before ours. Kevin held out his hand to me and I thought to myself: “What the heck is he doing?” Natalie took Kim’s outstretched hand so I grasped Kevin’s, feeling most uncomfortable. Then it dawned on me. They were asking us to join them in saying grace before eating. Being a Jewish atheist, my first reaction was indignation. It was presumptuous of Kevin to assume we would be comfortable with this. We were neither religious nor Christian. But, I went along. After all, they were gracious enough to share their table. Kevin thanked Jesus for their food and for watching over Kim during her pregnancy. He then asked Jesus to watch over me because he knew I was going to see the oncologist. I was really touched. He was including me, whom he had just met, in his prayer. My atheist outrage quickly dissolved, and I enjoyed the warmth of the moment.

Our food came while they were finishing theirs. As I was enjoying my French toast, heaped with whipped cream and fresh fruit, Kevin got up to pay his bill while the three of us continued talking. When he returned, we said our goodbyes and wished each other luck with our medical issues. I thought about asking for his card but we rarely use caterers. They left.

All in all, we were together for about 20 minutes. As Natalie and I were finishing our meal, I motioned to the server to bring our check. He came over and said, “There’s no charge for you.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “The other gentleman paid your bill,” he responded. I was stunned. We had never met them before and will probably never cross paths again. We didn’t know their last names. We couldn’t even thank them. Our differences in age and race didn’t matter. Just a simple human gesture of connection and kindness.

So, Kevin and Kim, wherever you are, thank you for a lovely meal.

Fred L. Pincus(pincus@umbc.edu) is emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

President Trump could learn a lot from Little League

By Fred L. Pincus Oct 26, 2018 at 11:45 AM President Trump called for ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’ in the wake of a string of bomb scares that targeted Democrats and CNN.

After the recent spate of pipe bombs sent to CNN, actor Robert Deniro and prominent Democratic politicians, critics of President Donald Trump have blamed him for creating an atmosphere of intolerance that encouraged the perpetrator. Trump supporters, on the other hand, say that you can’t blame the president for the acts of deranged individuals.

As a former college professor who taught about controversial issues, I know how important it is for authority figures to set positive examples. On the first day of the semester, I would be very clear about what was appropriate and inappropriate behavior in the classroom. Respectful disagreement was encouraged; name calling was not. For the most part, students complied.

For those who have trouble understanding how President Trump’s rhetoric creates a toxic atmosphere, I’d like to share a small incident that happened 28 years ago.

Commentary: Life lessons are taught on Little League diamonds

Commentary: Life lessons are taught on Little League diamonds Mar 03, 2016 at 8:39 PM

My son, Josh, began his baseball career at the age of 8 in the Roland Park Little League. When we arrived in the parking lot of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen, several hundred kids, predominantly male, milled around, looking for their teams. We finally found the coach of the Hawks and we met his teammates — 15 boys and two girls.

Ted, the coach, began handing out yellow hats and jerseys. When Josh put on his uniform, he looked up at his mom and me and said: “I’ve been waiting my whole life for this.” We smiled and hugged him. He’s going to be a better player than I was, I thought, happily. I volunteered to be the assistant coach.

On the first day of Hawks practice, Ted and I tried to see what kind of skills our team had. All of the players went into the field, and Ted hit grounders and fly balls to them. Not surprisingly, a few, including Josh, were excellent fielders. Several others couldn’t catch the ball if their lives depended on it. The rest were somewhere in the middle.

The same was true for batting skills. When I lobbed the ball to each player, we discovered that there was a range of skills among the boys. When Mary, the first girl, got up to bat, she swung weakly and missed. This girl has never held a bat before, I thought. Four more pitches produced the same result. Her fielding was also dreadful. The boys on the team looked at one another, shook their heads and laughed quietly. “Girls can’t play baseball,” they must have been thinking. Several of the boys were no better than Mary, but the boys didn’t attribute this to their gender.

Little League teaches kids some life lessons

Little League teaches kids some life lessons Apr 19, 2010 at 7:47 PM

When Betty came up to bat, the boys in the field moved closer. I lobbed the ball to her and she swung hard and missed. That was a good swing, I thought. She seems to know what she’s doing. The boys looked at each other and moved in even closer.

“Try again,” said Ted. “Keep your eye on the ball. Don’t swing so hard.”

I lobbed the ball to her again and this time she connected with a loud “ping” from the metal bat. The ball sailed over everyone’s head and went farther than most of the boys’ hits. The boys looked stunned and one shouted, “That’s pretty good for a girl.”

Cal Ripken will help your kid fight bullies

Cal Ripken will help your kid fight bullies Mar 06, 2012 at 6:20 AM

Ted had the perfect rejoinder: “That was a good hit, period. It doesn’t matter whether the batter was a boy or girl.” He spoke in a calm but convincing voice. This small comment set the tone for the rest of the season. I don’t recall any more gender-related comments from the boys.

Of course, it’s a big leap from a little league coach influencing his team to the president of the United States influencing his followers. But authority figures have the ability to create an atmosphere where people can disagree without resorting to acts of terror. Maybe the president can learn something from Ted.

Fred L. Pincus is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. His email is pincus@umbc.edu.

We can’t give in to bigotry [Commentary]

Mark Cuban is right that we are all affected by cultural stereotypes, but he is wrong about simply accepting this as a fact of life

By Fred L. Pincus

3:07 p.m. EDT, May 29, 2014

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban‘s controversial comments about walking across the street if he saw a young black man wearing a hoodie coming toward him late at night got me to thinking about an experience I had 30 years ago.

One night while walking from my Charles Village home to my car, I noticed two young black men walking toward me. It was very dark since the street light had blown out. Should I cross the street? I asked myself, concluding that such a move would be racist since they had just as much right to the sidewalk as I did. I continued walking.

As we came abreast of each other, right at the intersection of an alley, one of them put a gun to my head.

“Give my your f***ing money,” he said.

“Ok, ok, take it,” I replied and gave him my wallet. They grabbed it and ran down the alley. It took about 15 seconds. Stunned, I just stood there and watched. They threw away my wallet after taking the cash, but I remained standing for several minutes. Finally, I walked down the alley and picked up my wallet. My credit card and driver’s license were intact. Since it was dark, I never saw their faces.

I started trembling, and my thoughts raced: I could have been shot, or killed! I’m lucky that I got my wallet back. What do I do now? I drove to my friend’s house, my original destination, and called the police. Since a weapon was involved, the police arrived in minutes, but I couldn’t provide a description of the perpetrators. I declined their request to go down to police headquarters to look a mug shots since it wouldn’t do any good.

Was I stupid for not crossing the street to prove I wasn’t a racist or just naive? I always teach my students that racial stereotypes (exaggerated and distorted beliefs about a particular racial group) always have a grain of truth. Unfortunately, I sampled the grain and it tasted awful.

For months afterward, I was too terrified to walk near that alley. I would look around, twice, before getting out of my car. When I would see a young black man walking toward me, I would start to tremble again. My body ached to walk in the other direction, but I would keep walking. I kept telling myself, over and over again: You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most young black men don’t rob people. Statistically, the likelihood of you getting robbed again is small. Don’t give into the stereotypes. If a young white guy had put a gun to your head, you wouldn’t be afraid of all young whites.

Repeating this mantra kept me going until the terror turned into fear and the fear turned into concern and the concern turned into caution. I’m not sure what I would have done if I weren’t certain that most young black men, with or without hoodies, were law-abiding citizens who were just trying to live their lives.

Mr. Cuban is right that we are all affected by cultural stereotypes (he also said he would cross the street to avoid a white, bald, tattooed man), but he is wrong about simply accepting this as a fact of life. We don’t have to let our behavior be governed by bigotry.

Fred L. Pincus is an emeritus professor of sociology at UMBC. His email is pincus@umbc.edu.
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