This column for Tuesday, Jan. 18, is sandwiched between two Texas state holidays. Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, first observed by Texas in 1986. And Wednesday’s holiday? If you don’t already know, you’ll have to read to the bottom.
Because of COVID-19, San Antonio for the second consecutive year did not stage its massive, joyful MLK march Monday through the traditionally Black East Side of the city. So I instead read and meditated on Senate Bill 3, passed by the Texas Legislature last year during its second special session.
That’s the bill that makes it illegal to make elementary and high school children feel guilt or shame for America’s racial history. It has some good things in it. For example children may *not* be taught “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual’s moral character, standing, or worth is necessarily determined by the individual ’s race or sex,” or that “an individual, by virtue of the individual ’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”
It’s also good that the law requires that, when age appropriate, children are taught the “history and importance of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” as well as the 13th Amendment ending slavery.
But one sentence jumped out at me. It prohibits a teacher from suggesting “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
I’m grateful that the bill is against slavery and racism, defining them as failures to live up to “the authentic founding principles of the United States.” But to define them as “deviations, betrayals of, or failures to live up” to these principles strikes me as suggesting that slavery and racism are aberrations in the otherwise beneficent history of our country.
The reality, of course, is that slavery and racism have been tightly woven into the fabric of our nation from its founding and we have yet to untangle many of their threads. When “betrayals” are massive, persistent and socially fundamental, can they be dismissed as “deviations?” It is important to teach America’s ideals, but isn’t it just as important to teach its reality?
To see what I mean, let’s take a quick tour through the still shocking highlights (lowlights?) of U.S. and Texas history.
1787: The U.S. Constitution firmly establishes slavery in the nation. The Southern states with an economy based on slavery defined enslaved persons as property without the right to vote, but wanted them to be fully counted as persons for determining the size of states’ delegations to the House of Representatives. Northern states, some of them opposed, compromised by allowing three-fifths of the enslaved people to be counted. This gave the Southern states outsized power to block anti-slavery measures.
In addition, the impact of the three-fifths rule on the number of presidential electors Southern states were awarded enabled the presidential election of Thomas Jefferson who, as the author of the inspirational Declaration of Independence and the owner more than 600 enslaved people, might be called Founding Deviation and Betrayal.
1836: As Mexican Gen. Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna and his army were slaughtering the defenders of the Alamo, Sam Maverick, a land speculator, slave owner and later mayor of San Antonio, was rushing to Washington-on-the-Brazos, where a convention was being held to promulgate a Declaration of Independence and to write a constitution for the new Republic of Texas. He would arrive in time to sign the former and help shape the latter.
If you are of the persuasion that slavery was not a significant factor fueling the rebellion against Mexico, consider these provisions written into the document as Santa Anna was leading his army to its doom at the Battle of San Jacinto. Slavery and racism were foundational values baked into the Constitution.
“All persons, (Africans, the descendants of Africans, and Indians excepted,) who were residing in Texas on the day of the Declaration of Independence, shall be considered citizens of the Republic, and entitled to all the privileges of such.”
“No free person of African descent, either in whole or in part, shall be permitted to reside permanently in the Republic, without the consent of Congress.” In addition, owners who wanted to free slaves could not do so without the the consent of Congress unless the owner deported them.
1857: The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 in the Dred Scott decision that, “A free negro of the African race, whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States.” The chief justice wrote that society at the time of the drafting of the Constitution, and therefore the ratifiers themselves, believed Blacks to be “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”
1861: A special convention meeting in Austin put the issue of Secession to the voters, who overwhelmingly ratified it in an election a few months later. The convention issued a “declaration of the causes which impel the State of Texas to secede from the Federal Union.” A clear majority of the document dealt with slavery, including a declaration that accuses Northern states of promoting the “doctrine of the equality of all men, irrespective of race or color–a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of the Divine Law.”
1896: The U.S. Supreme Court issues its ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson, firmly establishing the constitutionality of “separate but equal” segregation of the races.
1923: Texas passes the “white primary law” authorizing political parties to prohibit racial minorities from participating in their primary elections, disenfranchising Blacks from voting in Democratic primaries that won every election for more than a century after the end of Reconstruction. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional, but after the Democratic Party on its own declared that only white people could vote, the Supreme Court unanimously held that as a “private organization” it could enforce that rule. It wasn’t until 1944 that Supreme Court, transformed by FDR appointees, would reverse itself.
1934: Congress establishes the Federal Housing Authority with the power to guarantee mortgage loans. This made possible long-term low-interest mortgages. From the beginning the FHA’s “underwriting manual” included these requirements: “The Valuator should investigate areas surrounding the location to determine whether or not incompatible racial and social groups are present, to the end that an intelligent prediction may be made regarding the possibility or probability of the location being invaded by such groups.” and “Recommended restrictions include … prohibition of the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended.” The federal government thus contributed massively to housing segregation and to the ability of white people but not Black people to build generational wealth through the value of their homes.
1944: The Veterans Administration home loan program helped millions of returning veterans buy homes, but until the 1960s civil rights legislation, the program was run similarly to the FHA loans, severely restricting Black participation and further contributing to the wealth gap. GI education benefits similarly discriminated, adding to the wealth gap. A Federal Reserve study in 2019 found an average net worth of white families of $188,200 with Black families at $24,100. (Hispanic families: $36,100.)
This is hardly a comprehensive list of “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to” the authentic founding principles of the United States. The subject could take up an entire high school course, but that would probably be illegal in Texas. It’s too bad, since most of us parents don’t regard our children as snowflakes who would melt if they were not only taught America’s ideals but also the fullness of the American reality.
They should also be taught that the deviations, betrayals and failures are not all in the past. Consider, if you are reading this on January 18, the day it is posted, this item regarding an event tomorrow that will be repeated annually for the foreseeable future:
1973: The Texas Legislature established “Confederate Heroes Day” as a state holiday on Jan. 19, the birthday of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Lee’s birthday had been a state holiday since 1931, but the 1973 Legislature wanted to add Confederate President Jefferson Davis. State workers have a paid holiday to celebrate two men who, in order to maintain slavery, made war in an attempt to destroy our nation. How does this comport with “the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality”?
Members of the Legislative Black Caucus last spring filed two bills during last year’s session to eliminate the holiday. Neither bill even received a committee hearing. In the wake of the murder of Texan George Floyd, Confederate statues all over the country were being toppled and the names of Confederate “heroes” removed from buildings.
Yet the leaders and majority of Texas legislators, while defining racism as a “deviation,” were refusing to stop a state-funded celebration of armed defenders of slavery.
If racism is a “deviation” and a “failure,” we should teach our children that we have come a long way in addressing it — and that we still have much work to do.