Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
- George Santayana (The Life of Reason, vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense)
Last year a seventh grade kid approached me about a problem he had with the Texas history text. He pointed to a photograph of a Ku Klux Klansman, pointy-hood and all. It was a photo probably from the 1920s, in no way flattering to the Klansman, and it accompanied a couple of paragraphs explaining the resurrection of the Klan in that era. The book explained what some did to fight the Klan (not enough, but that’s a topic for another time).
“That’s racist, Mister!”
I asked him why he thought the photograph was racist.
“That’s a Klansman! They killed people!”
Yes, it’s a Klansman, and yes, Klansmen killed people unjustly. That’s part of history, a part of history we need to remember to prevent it from happening again. I explained that the photo did not endorse the Klan in any way, and that section of the book actually spoke against their actions.
“You’re a racist, Mister! That picture is racist and should be cut out!”
Our conversation had taken an inexplicable (to me) turn, away from the content of the photo or the book, into uncharted realms of inanity.
“Why don’t you take your complaint to the principal, and tell your parents about it,” I said. “I think this is a conversation you and I should have with your parents present.”
Of course, the student did nothing I asked. Within a week I had a handful of other students complaining about the picture. Some of those conversations were better, but not much. Students had a difficult time understanding how reading about racism was not practicing racism. Learning about the mistakes of the past in order to avoid them, was the same as making the mistakes, the students argued.
This occurred shortly after several parents in another Texas school district had complained about the use of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it contains a slang term for “negro” now considered particularly offensive when used by whites. The complaining parents were black. Never mind that this great American novel’s point is that racism is wrong, slavery an abomination to a just God, and that Jim is much greater a man than those who held him captive in slavery.
I worry that too many people lack enough education in history to make rational decisions about what should be considered “good to read” and what should genuinely be kept out of curricula.
Case in point: A janitor and student at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis (IUPUI) was investigated for creating a “hostile work environment,” and one of his offenses appears to have been his reading of a history of a defeat of the Ku Klux Klan in South Bend, Indiana. It is unclear from details we have, but it appears complainants could not tell the difference between reading the history of a Klan defeat, and reading a book promoting the Klan.
Should we worry? I’d like your opinions, and experiences if you have any; details of the Indianapolis case below the fold.
Keith Sampson is a custodian and long-time student at IUPUI. Last fall he was working in accused of racial harassment of a co-worker. The shop steward warned Sampson against his behavior, and the campus’s Affirmative Action Officer Lillian Charleson investigated. Charleston wrote a letter to Sampson on November 25 finding he had harassed his colleague by “repeatedly reading the book, Notre Dame vs. the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the Ku Klux Klan, by Todd Tucker in the presence of Black employees.”
Now, that is understandable, if the book advocates Klan action. From everything I’ve been able to learn about the book, it is a straight up history of a riot in South Bend, Indiana, in 1925, in which the Klan’s hold on local politics was broken, an incident which began the decline of the Klan in the area.
We don’t know the character or actions of Mr. Sampson from the details we have; but how in the world could anyone cite this book as part of a hostile work environment? It’s history. It’s good news for anti-racists.
What in the world is really going on here?
Kathleen Parker of the Washington Post Writers’ Group wrote a column released on March 7 (here from the Houston Chronicle’s edition of today, March 9). Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars wrote about it earlier today. David Hoppe wrote about it earlier for Nuvo, Indianapolis’s alternative newspaper.
The good news is that Sampson has a letter saying he won’t face disciplinary action, and the IUPUI Affirmative Action office’s spokesman, Richard C. Schneider, agrees that it’s quite alright to read even controversial books at IUPUI.
But beyond that? Watch that space. I asked Schneider whether the Affirmative Action Office was defending Klan action by railing against an anti-Klan book, and he set me straight that the office has pulled back criticisms of the book and reading it:
The office of Affirmative Action at IUPUI investigated a claim of a hostile work environment filed by a co-worker of Mr. Sampson, who is an employee as well as a student at IUPUI.
Investigation of claims of uncivil behavior, discrimination or sexual harassment in the workplace are taken very seriously and investigated by the Office of Affirmative Action at IUPUI.
Position of the Office of Affirmative Action:
· Mr. Sampson is free to read whatever book he wishes to during work breaks or other appropriate times at work.
· Co-workers requesting the investigation perceived that Mr. Sampson was engaged in conduct for the purpose of creating a hostile atmosphere of antagonism.
· Mr. Sampson believes that he should be permitted to read whatever book he chooses, whether or not the subject matter is of concern to his co-workers.
The Office of Affirmative Action was unable to draw any final conclusion concerning what was intended by the conduct of Mr. Sampson. Because there was no final conclusion, no adverse disciplinary action has been or will be taken in connection with the circumstances at hand.
A letter sent to Mr. Sampson by the Office of Affirmative Action in November 2007 referred to a book Mr. Sampson brought with him to read during work breaks, “vs the Klan: How the Fighting Irish Defeated the .” Regrettably, that has focused attention on the book he was reading, rather than the conduct of Mr. Sampson which his co-workers believed to be deliberately hostile.
A second letter was sent to Mr. Sampson in February 2008 withdrawing the first letter. It sets forth the position of the Office of Affirmative Action that is cited above.
I’m scratching my head. Is it racist to show a picture that makes a Klansman look like a buffoon? Is it racist to read Huck Finn, a book that makes racism look stupid and anti-American? Is it racist to read a book detailing how the Klan got its butt kicked in 1925?If the answer to any of those question is “yes,” then how can we spread the better part of American culture, the part that informs us how and why such racism is stupid and counterproductive?
Having students who misunderstand Huck Finn and Texas history makes me more sensitive than necessary to this story, perhaps. I hope so. I am still concerned.
What say you?
- Nuvo has a copy of the November letter, in .pdf
- Nuvo’s copy of the first February letter
- Nuvo’s follow-up story
- Mergatroyd comments on Huck Finn (see the entry for December 5)
- Mark Twain’s warning in the frontispiece of Huck Finn: “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”
Important update: The incident has finally been removed from the personnel record of Mr. Sampson — here’s what I know of the story from Ed Brayton’s blog, back on May 5.