One of the lingering aftereffects of my Georgia childhood is a habit of saying “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am.” I became awkwardly aware of the habit 10 years ago when I moved to Santa Fe.
People responded: “You don’t have to call me ma’am,” because the habit was embarrassingly old-fashioned.
I thank them for calling my attention to it, because I realize as I grow older the habit was never truly benign. Sure, I still say “sir” and “ma’am” to the elderly (unless they correct me), but even during my 20s in the 1990s, I instinctively yes-ma’am-ed people who were my own age and, looking back, I especially and hurriedly yes-ma’am-ed anyone who was white. It was a kind of psychological -genuflection reinforced by the Georgia educational system which promulgated a version of history that subliminally (and sometimes not so subliminally) justified Black inferiority.
I thought about my Georgia childhood spent yes-ma’am-ing given recent controversy surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT); Georgia is one of the Southern states that has joined the conservative bandwagon, harping on the sinister CRT-influenced education that may let concepts like systemic racism enter the school curriculum. Conservative mania spreads attacks, like a recent screed by rightwing radio host Buck Sexton, calling CRT “identity politics indoctrination.” Meanwhile, the Georgia Board of Education in June passed a resolution that prohibits educational materials that imply “an individual bears responsibility for actions committed in the past,” or that could cause students to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.”
But what is CRT really? It’s a scholarly practice that traces the specific impact white privilege has had on American law and jurisprudence since the end of slavery. Although conservatives hijacked the CRT name for a scare-tactic campaign, books written by CRT scholars are not being taught in primary schools—in Georgia or anywhere else. Then why are conservatives are raging? They’re raging to preserve the biases that have characterized American education. They’re raging with complete intellectual cowardice against high schools updating texts to present facts such as the story of the Tulsa Race massacre, the history of slave patrols (which led to the modern police force), the violent overthrow of Black elected officials during Reconstruction or the post-war GI bill that excluded most Black veterans. CRT, then, is a historically accurate body of facts that lead to the logical conclusion America is a systemically racist nation, and conservatives are raging to preserve primary school systems like those in my own Georgia youth.
I remember that each year the biased limitations of our education became apparent when we studied Brown vs the Board of Education. We learned in a perfunctory way that the next major step toward equality in America—after Emancipation—was the 1954 Supreme Court decision that decided segregated facilities were unjust. It made little sense. My high school was overwhelmingly Black and segregated. So were most other Georgia schools and neighborhoods; so indeed was a big portion of the United States.
Black and white neighborhoods were no more on an equal social and economic footing back then than if two plus two equalled five; if de jure segregation was immoral, then de facto segregation in America was immoral. If so, why were we not allowed to interrogate it? The necessary facts such as detailing housing discrimination, job discrimination or redlining, were taboo. Lacking these concepts, the sum effect of teacherly exhortations to “just work hard” was to backhandedly inform Black children that while white Americans worked hard and reaped rewards, Blacks, over 100 years after slavery, were shiftless, lazy or less than true citizens.
And sometimes the racist messaging was blatant, the white supremacist underpinnings revealed. I probably won’t ever forget what happened after my 7th grade social studies teacher paired the class into groups representing the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. Hubert Middle School was overwhelmingly Black, but this particular group with high IQ scores (and high-income parents) was 90% white. We had been instructed to creatively reenact the making of the US Constitution, using our own debates, arguments and resolutions. Everything proceeded well until we debated slavery. By majority vote, we decided the United States would be governed by three presidents (a three-heads-are-better-than-one-philosophy).
The exercise was intellectually stimulating, as I noted, until...
The class unanimously voted slavery down, and the decision clearly upset the social studies teacher. She promptly lectured us that the Civil War had nothing to do with slavery; besides, she claimed, the decision we made was unrealistic. She insisted we vote again. Influenced by her chagrin, the white students changed their votes. The Black students, in shock (like myself), had no intention of changing. We persevered in making a moral point. We lost the subsequent vote.
And what was the point? I believe I was looking at nothing less than the construction of prejudice and white identity. The teacher impressed upon the white -students that they must not appear to apologize for slavery and instilled them with a sense that, when a subject makes whites uncomfortable, or guilty, they can use power to shut down the argument.
Conservatives engaging in an anti-Critical Race Theory campaign don’t want to live in a multicultural world. They want a world where Black students given biased information still politely respond “Yes, sir,” and “Yes, ma’am.” Whether they believe it or not, their mindless desperation is proof they’re losing the argument.