Letter to the Editor: Submitted by Rolf Johnson

To the Editor:

The Des Moines Register recently reported that our state legislature has passed a new law (House File 802), since signed by Governor Reynolds, that prohibits the teaching of the view that Iowa or the U.S. is “fundamentally or systemically racist.” As a former teacher I have a few questions regarding the interpretation and application of this law. Is teaching that our country or state is systemically racist prohibited because the view is false? Or is it banned even if it happens to be true?

Suppose there are reputable historians on both sides of this issue, then presumably one side can be taught but not the other? Notice further that the law is worded in the present tense - “is fundamentally or systemically racist.” How then are we to approach the study of the past? Is it okay to teach that pre-Civil War America was racist?

If this is permitted, can there be inquiry in our classrooms into just when and how it ceased to be so? Suppose a student suggests that it ended the day before the law under discussion was passed. This, it seems, could be legally entertained, but evidently not the view that systemic racism has not yet been eradicated altogether.

Approaching the topic from another angle, there have been numerous news reports that white supremacy is on the rise around the country. Is this a topic that can be addressed in a high school or college civics or political science course? Suppose a governmental official holding high office were to proclaim that some white supremacists are very good people, and then proceed to appeal to this group for votes. Could this news be covered in that high school or college course?

Here is another possible scenario: suppose a student cites the widely reported statistic that black families in America have only about 12% of the accumulated wealth of white families, and then asks the teacher how this came to be. How should the teacher handle this question? Must she sidestep it? Perhaps she could explain that addressing the question in our state might be illegal and she could lose her position if she tried.

Of course she could assure the student that the statistic could not possibly be true, citing as evidence House File 802. The one answer that cannot be given, however, is that the discrepancy is due to the lingering effects of systemic racial injustice.

Why, we might wonder, do we need such a law? The bill itself offers the answer: no students “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.” Translation: white students should never be made to feel uncomfortable because they belong to a group that, for example, has benefited from a long history of structural racism. Black people, on the other hand, have to accept these consequences with the comforting assurance that it is now absolutely at an end. Are you, like me, left with the impression that white Iowans are rather delicate in comparison to our black brothers and sisters?

Rolf Johnson
New Albin