There is only one elementary school classmate whose name I remember almost eight decades later.
His name was Arthur.
He was Black. He and the only other Black child, a girl, sat together at the back of our third-grade classroom in Spring Valley, N.Y. He dressed very neatly and almost never spoke up, but he was constantly being picked on by the others.
There came a day that I did, too.
Something was missing. I called out, “Maybe Arthur took it.” There was no reason to say that, except that Arthur seemed to get blamed for everything.
I did not know why.
Now, it’s obvious.
I will take to my grave the guilty memory of the fear and hurt on his face.
I managed to stow it in the back of my mind, not thinking about it for the next dozen years or so, while I grew to flatter myself that I was free of prejudices.
What made me recall the incident was a provocative assignment from a remarkable sociology professor at Florida State University, Lewis M. Killian.
He taught a popular course on race relations. Classroom debates were very lively. Florida was still fighting desegregation. It would be another six years before FSU enrolled any Black students.
It came time to write a term paper. We were to describe in confidence everything we had ever felt about Blacks. All the way back.
Killian assured us that nobody but him would read those papers. He never discussed them in class.
The exercise had been, as he intended, a powerful teaching moment. It was for me.
It exposed the insidious influence of latent prejudice even among people who think they’re above it.
No one in my family had ever bad-mouthed Black people.
I can’t remember any of those other children doing it overtly.
And yet their latent and not-so-latent biases came out in their treatment of Arthur.
And, consequently, in mine.
I first wrote about this experience in 1992, in the context of a school desegregation issue.
I am writing it now because of Gov. Ron DeSantis. If his self-styled Stop-WOKE Act had been in force then, I probably could have sued Lew Killian for making me feel badly about myself, and he would have been fired.
More likely, he would not have taught the course at all, and he would have left Florida as soon as the Legislature passed the bill.
It would have been as impossible then as it is now to teach American history, civics or race relations without mentioning the three-century history of anti-Black racism in America, how it took root as an excuse for slavery, and how it continues to affect how Americans treat each other today.
The DeSantis law (HB 7 in 2022) is a baited trap for anyone who would try to teach any of that honestly.
Consider what the law says teachers must avoid. It applies even to the sensitivity training programs at private businesses.
No one must be made to feel that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish, or other forms of psychological distress because of actions in which the person played no part committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex.”
That draws a blurry line easily crossed, as U.S. District Judge Mark Walker recognized in his 138-page order banning its enforcement on college campuses — an order the DeSantis administration is appealing. Walker called that part of the law “positively dystopian.”
DeSantis’ alternative history and censorship are prevailing in public schools. A book about the baseball hero Roberto Clemente, who died in a plane crash on a humanitarian mission, was off Duval County’s shelves for a year because it mentioned, altogether truthfully, that he had experienced racism.
As a privileged white person, and as a patriot, I damn well should feel responsible, guilty and anguished for not having done enough to make the laws truly colorblind or to make race prejudice as taboo as profanity in a house of worship.
Killian was born and raised in Georgia and had an accent to prove it. He was faculty adviser to the Kappa Alpha fraternity chapter at FSU, which I made fun of in a student newspaper column for the ways it celebrated the Confederacy. When a student in his class said I had no right to write such things, Killian rebuked him sharply.
“Don’t you ever say in my class that someone doesn’t have a right to write something,” Killian responded.
How far backward have we gone since then?