What are we afraid of?

The realization that starts this off is that I lived just outside of Rome, Georgia for eight years of my life, between 2003 and 2011, and I never visited the Chieftains Museum.

The Chieftains Museum and Major Ridge Home is a site dedicated to the preservation of Cherokee culture. The namesake of the home is a uniquely American character in every sense, a Cherokee who fought alongside American forces in the War of 1812 (and who got the title that became his name, Major Ridge, from Andrew Jackson himself) and who built for himself a relatively secure way of life before the passage of the Indian Removal Act at the behest of President Jackson in 1830. Ridge was a negotiator and signatory of the Treaty of New Echota that laid the groundwork for the infamous Trail of Tears. Ridge took blame for the suffering that followed, and (depending on whose history you read) Ridge was murdered or executed for treason, along with his son and nephew, in 1839.

So I’m aware of that history now. But the point at the onset of this essay remains. I wasn’t aware of any of that history while I lived in Floyd County, Georgia. Why not?

It’s not like I didn’t have reminders. There was Cherokee script at key locations throughout the county, much of it pointing towards the Chieftains Museum, but also on the very seal of the county itself, as you see. I don’t recall anybody speaking negatively about that history, or saying that we should ignore the history.

But I don’t ever remember any compulsion to study the history, either. And I’d showed up in the area to go to the Southern Baptist college and teach physics and chemistry. As my time at that college went on, I got pressure to integrate my teaching of physics and chemistry with my practice of Christian faith, and I was having trouble figuring out how to make that work. I reached a point where I started to feel like doing the cultural work was something that was above my pay grade. I have classes to teach. I have students intimidated enough by the subject matter of those classes. Let me do my work.

That was the context that drove me, not merely away from Native American history, but away from all business of culture, race, and identity, and away from that business before, during, and after my time in Rome.

At the end of the day, the language I cared the most about was mathematics. I wanted students to be able to communicate what they saw in the natural world with the algebraic equation, with measurements with units, with differentials and integrals. English was the language we’d dialogue with, but if it didn’t serve mathematics, I didn’t care much about it. And that gave me grounds to cast all kinds of concerns about culture to the side, because of the common ground that mathematics provided for me.

For us, of course. But for me.

The way I saw it, the other problems I dealt with were important enough that I didn’t need to spare the time to go through a museum to learn about somebody else’s problems.

Overcoming selfishness is a lifetime’s worth of work.

So let’s talk about where I first heard the term “critical race theory” in the current context.

Of all places, it was on the Shutdown Fullcast podcast, the group of chucklebums that I listen to talk about college football and other things. Spencer Hall got to read the key passage from the email that completely passed by my ear at the time (around 14:00 is the point where the email is read and immediately dissected):

It is disgraceful to see the lack of unity and our fiercest competitor Sam Elinger standing nearly alone. It is symbolic of the disarray of this football program which you inherited. The critical race theory garbage that has been embraced by the football program and the university is doing massive irreparable damage to our glorious institution and to the country. It has got to stop.

The email was quoted in a Texas Tribune article about controversy about the school song of the University of Texas, “The Eyes of Texas”. It was such a troubled and tormented email, the writer misspelled the name of the Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger.

I like football, and I follow football for a host of reasons. For better or for worse, one of those reasons is represented here: the strain on campus life in microcosm. The email was from a rich donor implicitly threatening his continued contribution to the school if players on the team didn’t stand in front of the band and sing the song that has its roots in minstrel shows, and where historical controversy still swirls around its connection to Robert E. Lee’s post-Civil War insistence that “the eyes of the South are upon you”.

As a purely empathetic matter, it is a bit understandable that Black athletes might not be 100% comfortable singing that song.

But what’s that bit about “critical race theory”? And what specifically is it, and how’s it being used in the argument?

That I even have to be asking the question is evidence that I checked out of the rhetorical back-and-forth in the runup to the 2020 election. The fact-checking site Snopes gives a summary of both the rhetoric and misinformation that led to the previous president launching curbs on diversity training in September 2020, and perspectives on the current controversies from the end of May 2021. I needed them both.

I’m not going to get into the legal theories or the sociological foundations of the thinking that makes the formal structure of critical race theory what it is; I’m not a legal scholar nor am I a sociologist, and I know my limits. But I can make one key point from reviewing the background: to many of us who live and work in disciplines that have a strong tendency to be overwhelmingly white, the challenging thing about critical race theory is the assertion that racism doesn’t have to be an intentional act or a malicious posture. We can work in environments that have racist impact, and we can make corrections to those environments that eliminate the racist impact.

College athletics is the seat of a lot of racist impact. The benefit of college athletics is supposed to be the free access to the college education for the athlete. But that benefit has been handed out unevenly. The most reliable independent measure of graduation success for student-athletes, the Adjusted Graduation Gap, reports in 2020 a 21.5% gap in graduation rates between top-flight conference (Power-5) football athletes who are Black and the general full-time population, compared to a 2.1% gap between white athletes from the same population.

That can’t be satisfying to anybody. We ought to work to make achievement better for everybody who comes through our gates.

Gaps like this persist throughout the whole of higher education. They’re well documented. I’ve always been concerned about the demographics within physics, a discipline that has been dominated by white males from the moment it was recognized as an academic discipline. The American Physical Society collects data on these gaps, and they’re stark. The graph on degrees awarded by race and ethnicity is so broken, the degrees awarded to white students has to be rescaled in order to just make the differences between bachelor’s degrees and PhD’s awarded for other demographic groups legible.
URM Physics Average 2020 graph
(Even then, the bars for Native Americans are miniscule. I don’t even know how I address that in this post.)

We can talk about these issues with the same hand-wringing about low academic achievement among underrepresented groups that we’ve engaged in since the 1960’s, or we can ask serious questions about the environments that these students have to work in. How are these environments welcoming to white students in ways that they aren’t welcoming to Black students? Or to Native American students?

There are all kinds of thinkers taking the question of our environments and their welcome to underrepresented minorities seriously, and I’ve been fortunate enough to find myself in conversation with some of them. The idea that there is a specific culture to physics and chemistry that welcomes people who are willing to conform and asks people to leave their identities behind is starting to have real appeal to me. It explains the monoculture I’ve experienced in other scientific environments, and how I’ve felt stifled by that monoculture. I’m asking questions about how I can ensure students can be more fully themselves in my classroom, and advocate for students to be more fully themselves in other venues they find themselves in.

The upshot of all of this is that I’ve started wondering if I’m a critical race theorist.

Of course I’m not somebody who can compose the legal theory or the sociological scholarship to develop ideas that are publisher of my own. But I’m still totally exasperated with the status quo, and I’m not satisfied with answers that fall into the same way we’ve tried to address the clear inequities that exist. What is the harm in asking if the reasons those inequities exist are part of our history? Or part of our tradition?

I still remember reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ groundbreaking Case for Reparations in the Atlantic for the first time in 2014. I was always going to read it; I have always taken a great deal of joy and reward out of a well-documented piece of longform journalism, and The Case for Reparations was every bit of that.

The essay wasn’t something that brought the usual joy, though. It was something that put in front of me a great deal of history, history that my high school education hadn’t put in front of me at any point. Predatory contract mortgages for buyers in “redlined” neighborhoods, white terrorism and the failure of reconstruction, racism embedded in the structure of the New Deal, stolen wealth around every last turn. It awakened me to a new set of stories that built a very different narrative around the American Dream – and who the American Dream was for – than anything I had learned previously.

I also remember who in my universe took The Case for Reparations seriously – nobody.

On the one hand, this is what I’m having trouble understanding. The narratives of our history – the history of all of us, the lived experience of the injustice the dominant population has served to those who originally lived here, or those who were brought to this continent in chains – are available to be read, to be listened to, to be reckoned with, to be understood. It’s a history that doesn’t neatly fit what we were taught in school, but it’s a history that is available and accessible. Why shouldn’t we take that history seriously?

On the other hand, history of exactly that sort was there for me for eight years when I lived in Rome, Georgia, and I simply never availed myself of it. I wasn’t from around there anyway. It wasn’t my ancestors that agitated for native removal, who created the conditions that led to the Trail of Tears. It wasn’t my ancestors who bought and owned slaves and who fought in the Civil War. It wasn’t my problem. I just lived there.

“I just lived there”, of course, is part of the problem when you sit back and listen to the people who the land originally belonged to. There’s privilege in being able to buy land and buy a house and live somewhere, and that privilege might not be fairly obtained.

It begins to occur to me that the seizure of land from natives in the 1830’s and the redlining that was so commonplace in the 1950’s are two sides of the same coin – a white-dominant society demanding control of all it can survey, and using every method in the book – whether illegal, immoral, or otherwise – to ensure that control.

If I didn’t know that we were above such shameful things, I might call it the work of white supremacy.

It also begins to occur to me that I might not be able to persuade you that we’re above such shameful things.

As I’m writing this the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention meeting is starting, and messengers have gathered in Nashville to conduct the business of the convention. In the midst of all kinds of other strain and scandal, this was the meeting that had a group of Black pastors and churches on the brink of leaving the Convention, and the core issue at hand for them is the straw-man version of critical race theory. The six presidents of SBC seminaries – all white – declared in November 2020 (on the heels of the murder of George Floyd, no less) that critical race theory was incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message, the doctrinal document that has been used as a bludgeoning tool to drive people who don’t fit within the SBC’s increasingly fundamentalist theology out of the denomination.

Black pastors within the convention cried foul – many of them hadn’t taken any concern with critical race theory at all, and were simply pointing out injustices in policing and law enforcement that were at the heart of our current national moment. It raises the question anew – what is, to these people, critical race theory? Is it simply legal and sociological ideas, reserved for discussion in academic institutions? Or is it any statement of an idea that questions how white people treat minorities?

What are we afraid of? What is going to happen if we hear stories of injustice from 1830 or 1950 or 2020 and acknowledge that white people were genuinely at fault? What collapses if we listen to the realities of our story as a nation and ask if we do need a new explanation for why every conflict has favored the racial majority?

What idols do we worship that need to be torn down?

What selfishness do we hold on to that needs to be given away?

I attended the 2021 meeting of the Open/Technology in Education, Society, and Scholarship Association (or #OTESSA21) as part of the Canadian Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences as May turned into June. The idea that I’d attend a “congress of humanities and social sciences” would have been laughable to me at one point in my life. But age has done nothing for me beyond giving me the capacity to listen to others’ stories and reckon with them for a while.

And as it happened, the week before OTESSA started, there was a discovery outside the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, where native children had been taken from their families and placed in the care of the Roman Catholic Church as part of a process of assimilation into Canadian society. There had long been documentation of how difficult the environment of the residential school had been, to the point of extremes.

And this led to the discovery of a mass grave of the bodies of 215 children, of all ages – from the brink of adulthood to as young as 3, all apparently from the time when the residential school had been open and active.

For a meeting that already had a focus on efforts to build relations with the Canadian North on the terms of those who live there, this discovery was an earthquake, and what already would have been full of reflection became an immediate reckoning and, for this Yankee, surprisingly painful conversation. It necessitated pausing and listening intently.

The conference started on what’s known in the United States as Memorial Day. My “memorial day” became something quite different, and nowhere near as patriotic as my friends and neighbors might have liked.

I hadn’t believed I was signing on to this meeting for listening to reports of indigenous storytellers delivering their stories over powerful technology to children at isolated schools and libraries, or of indigenous scholars using open pedagogy to engage students in finding their place in a national effort towards truth and reconciliation. The word “colonial” took on an entirely new meaning, and I had to wrestle with it not merely being a historic term referring to the process by which my ancestors came to their presence on this land, but a continuing process by which those of us who are white and European set the terms of academic engagement, increasingly for the entire world, while ignoring other forms of what we call “scholarship” that have been and continue to be practiced by indigenous people who the land belongs to, and who belong to the land.

I will probably look back at OTESSA 2021 not merely as starting a relationship with a new professional association, but reevaluating my entire relationship with the land and with the people the land belongs to. It was as educational as any meeting I’ve ever attended (even if I only attended online), and the education I got was one I did not anticipate.

So, for now:

My name is Douglas Charles Pearson, Jr.

I have spent much of my adult life living as an uninvited settler across the lands of the Cherokee, within the borders of the nation claimed by the United States unlawfully and immorally by the Indian Removal Act of 1830.

I’m grateful this land has received me as a guest.