Does GOP bill assume white fragility? Or whitewash history?

by Rekha Basu

One thing we might all agree on is there’s no shortage of subjects on which to disagree. Guns, politics and religion; differing ideologies on how to end poverty or deal with immigration; how to protect the planet and raise our food. A particularly hot-button one right now is whether or not to trust vaccines.

Yet with all of these potentially divisive topics, the Iowa Legislature is zeroing in on two around which to limit discussion by law: Race and sex.

Senators advanced House File 802 to the Iowa Senate Education Committee last week after speakers representing educators and domestic violence survivors implored them not to.

The bill would outlaw so called “divisive” talk by government-hired trainers, teachers or students in diversity training sessions, under threat of job loss or funding cuts. The main goal, evidently, is to protect members of historically privileged groups from feeling bad about their groups’ contributions to the problems of racism or sexism.

Diversity trainings, as you might recall, became popular in the early 90s, when businesses or other organizations, responding to appeals from resource groups, started bringing in trainers to sensitize managers and employees to ongoing issues of inequality. They varied in approach, but the goal was to create more inclusive and productive cultures in which everyone felt a sense of belonging and could be heard.

So we’ve come around full circle, and then some. Instead of delving into the sources of ongoing inequities between white and Black, men and women, in order to mitigate them, the bill aims to protect the privileged from feeling bad.

The bill would prohibit the use of “divisive concepts,” which would include all of the following and more:

  • That the United States, and Iowa, are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.
  • That an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive.
  • That people should be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of their race or sex.
  • That moral character is determined by race or sex.
  • That a meritocracy or hard-work ethic is racist or sexist, or created for oppression.

Trainers couldn’t raise such “divisive” issues, only respond to questions about them from trainees. As you can see, it’s a pointed warning not to guilt-trip males or members of the racial majority on male dominance or white privilege.

That’s outrageous.

“The United States was founded on the principle that all people are created equal,” wrote Robin Deangelo, a white woman, lecturer and diversity trainer in her acclaimed book, “White Fragility.” “Yet the nation began with the attempted genocide of Indigenous people and the theft of their land. American wealth was built on the labor of kidnapped and enslaved Africans and their descendants. Women were denied the right to vote until 1920, and Black women were denied access to that right until 1965.”

Deangelo does a good job debunking the idea that you can fully address racial disparities without looking at the past. She writes of her own education as a diversity trainer. “I was a full adult, a parent, and a college graduate before I ever experienced a challenge to my racial identity,” she said, noting her lifetime of “internalized superiority … and expectation for racial comfort that our culture engenders. I simply never had been called upon to endure racial stress.”

And she has seen those stress responses: “If and when an educational program does directly address racism and the privileges of whites, common white responses include anger, withdrawal, emotional incapacitation, guilt, argumentation and cognitive dissonance.”

But that doesn’t mean to her that they shouldn’t have to deal with it, or that individual racist acts can be viewed in isolation from “a larger system of interlocking dynamics … The simplistic idea that racism is limited to individual intentional acts committed by unkind people is at the root of virtually all white defensiveness on this topic.”

This all prompts the question: Does this largely white legislative majority think the white American majority, or men in general, are so fragile they can’t handle historical truths? Or are they trying to whitewash American history?

Consider one prominent white Iowan’s powerful journey to reckoning with such truths. Russell Lovell, a longtime professor at Drake Law School, has been a member of the NAACP since 1974. Raised in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, in a Republican household, Lovell was attending law school in Lincoln in 1968 when his class was planning a social event at the local Elks Club, for which his father was the lawyer. When the club learned the class had a Black member, it said he couldn’t come. The class refused to hold the event there and Lovell resigned from the club in protest, writing a prominent piece explaining why.

That would have caused his parents not to speak to him for about eight years, Lovell says, had it not been for the births of his and his wife’s two daughters. Still, some tension endured between him and his parents over their political differences. Then in 1976, after his father was diagnosed with cancer, he asked Russell to return to Scottsbluff and run his law practice until he recovered. Russell agreed though he had accepted a job with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which he had to resign. He ran the law practice for six months until his father was better, then accepted a job offer from Drake.

In the past year, Lovell has seen families split over the police killings of George Floyd and other African Americans. “Believe me, I understand that,” he said, noting that, though his family came together again, they never agreed on racial justice. He felt his parents’ lack of interaction with Black people was largely responsible for their views.

Lovell has registered official opposition to House File 802 on behalf of the NAACP. “It would be very chilling if it’s in the law,” he said, adding that he has taught some of these concepts himself. “The fear of retaliation is just too great.”

Lawmakers should consider his story, educate themselves on racial issues and get a grip on their own fragility instead of imposing these divisive, destructive and chilling sanctions on people’s ability to learn and grow.

Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register. Readers may send her email at rbasu@dmreg.com.

Editor’s Note:

Three similar bills have been introduced in the West Virginia Legislature: SB 558, SB 618 and HB 2595.