By The Herald Editorial Board
Judging recent attempts to rewrite history — or at least to recast the accounts of it — we’d really like to distance ourselves from a past that’s entangled with racism, whether it’s the national culture of the Old South that embraced and died for slavery, or a more tacit acceptance of racism’s malingering effects.
Three examples illustrate those attempts to either ignore or confront our past, the last of which finds a balance that allows racism to be repudiated without erasing history all together:
Case one: The passage last month by Florida’s Republican-led state legislature of the “Stop Woke Act,” a law as educationally misguided as its name is grammatically painful. The act, signed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who made it a priority, outlaws the teaching of critical race theory or of racial issues and history that might lead students to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress.” Similar laws have been passed in Idaho, Arkansas and Tennessee.
But how does one teach U.S. history — or world history and current events, for that matter — without inviting discomfort over how people, cultures and nations have sometimes brutally mistreated other people, cultures and nations, whether we’re talking about Africans brought as slaves to the Americas, Native Americans driven from their lands or Uyghur Muslims forced into Chinese concentration camps.
Yes, such accounts are difficult to face; they are distressing. Yet such accounts are how our sense of empathy is developed and how we acknowledge past wrongs, even as we celebrate accomplishments.
Not only is such a law a disservice to history, it discounts our students’ abilities to consider what they are being taught, weigh it against their beliefs and learn from it.
A recent Washington Post commentary by two education professors and authors argues that students — teenagers, especially — are hardwired to argue and eager to weigh new information.
“Students confronted with critical views of American history with which they disagree won’t melt or suffer from ‘psychological distress,’” authors Robert Cohen and Sonia Murrow write. “Rather, they’ll raise objections and challenge those views. We know this is true because it has happened for decades.”
Their conclusion: “Debate and argument about our past can spark a love of history, and a realization that history truly is one intense debate informed by evidence and reason.”
Case two: Last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed legislation that will replace the word “marijuana” with “cannabis” in all state law to avoid use of a word — used by Mexicans in the 19th century and spread by anti-drug crusaders in the U.S. in the early 20th century — that is “pejorative and racist,” according to the lawmaker, Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, who first sponsored the legislation in 2021 before it passed this year.
“Cannabis” already is widely used by the recreational marijuana industry and is the scientific term for the hemp plant, from which marijuana and cannabis products are derived. So, use of the scientific term in the state’s revised code makes a certain sense. But there’s disagreement over whether the word “marijuana,” because of its Mexican origins, reflects racism from a negative reputation for cannabis and a direct reflection on Mexico and Latinos in the U.S.
“The idea that the word marijuana is racist, I just think it’s nonsense. Marijuana is just the Mexican word for the drug cannabis,” Isaac Campos, a professor of Latin American history who has studied marijuana’s background, told Seattle’s KUOW radio (94.9 FM).
“Marijuana,” Campos said, is similar to the word “salsa,” which is just Mexican for a sauce, but has come to represent a specific sauce in the U.S.
“The fact that we use it for a certain kind of Mexican sauce that goes on tacos just shows that Mexican cuisine has had a huge influence in this country,” Campos said.
And judging by the legal and social acceptance that recreational marijuana has already gained in Washington and several other states, and the recent vote in the U.S. House to decriminalize cannabis, negative connections between marijuana and Mexican culture, if they ever existed, have long been on the wane.
Case three: The Washington state Supreme Court ruled this month that homeowners cannot ask their county auditor to remove racial covenants from the public record of a home’s title and deed, thus erasing the history of past racism that was common throughout the state and nation and called “redlining,” where Blacks and other minorities were kept out of white neighborhoods.
A Spokane homeowner had asked the Spokane County auditor to remove a covenant — even though it was no longer enforceable — that read “no race or nationality other than the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot.”
However, the auditor determined she didn’t have the legal authority to remove the covenant, and a county Superior Court and a state court of appeals agreed with the auditor, the Spokesman-Review reported.
In the meantime, the state Legislature changed the law addressing racial covenants and allowed homeowners to pursue a “judicial remedy” to remove a covenant’s wording from the chain of title while preserving a record of the documents for historical purposes.
The state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the lower courts, returning the issue to the trial court, to apply the recent change in state law.
“We must ensure that future generations have access to these documents because, although the covenants are morally repugnant, they are part of a documented history of disenfranchisement of a people,” Justice G. Helen Whitener wrote in the unanimous opinion. “It is our history.”
Whitener, who is Black, continued: “It would destroy only the physical evidence that this discrimination ever existed. It would be all too easy for future generations to look back at these property records with no physical evidence of the discriminatory covenants and conclude that the covenants never existed at all.”
Such a covenant is not something many would come across in most circumstances, and such blatant racism certainly won’t add to a property’s resale value. But lawmakers and the courts are correct not to allow the historical record to be whitewashed to tidy up a deed for appearance’s sake.
Our history — that recorded in text books, our language and mundane documents — must be retained, down to the ugliest of details. Or else we lose the opportunity to learn from it and instead preserve the risk that we’ll repeat it.
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