Writing about the new, much-discussed Texas education law in The New Yorker, Benjamin Wallace-Wells concludes that its point is to “establish a protective halo around white students, so that they do not hear that their success might have something to do with their race, or that the structures of racial power and privilege in the past also apply to the present.”
It is “telling,” he writes, that the law
prohibits teachers and administrators from suggesting that “an individual’s moral character, standing, or worth is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex.” It insists that no individual student should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”
This description of the law (echoed by Timothy Snyder in this much worse New York Times Magazine essay) is not quite right. The law does not insist that students should not feel discomfort or guilt based on their race; it insists that teachers not instruct them that they should feel distress based on their race. A teacher is not violating the law if a lesson about the long history of white mistreatment of blacks in the U.S. causes a white student to feel shame. What the teacher may not do is say that white students should be ashamed of this history. (Or — the text of the law is objectionably ambiguous on this point — say that some people have believed in collective guilt for white people.)
Wallace-Wells is more generous toward the law’s backers than many of the other critics have been. “The bill doesn’t rewrite history in the way that the campaigns to protect Confederate memorialization have sometimes sought to,” he concedes, before making his own critique: “Instead, it tries to cleave off students from any feeling of historical responsibility — as if, with each generation, America were re-created, blameless and anew. . . . The debate isn’t about history, exactly. It is about the possibility of blamelessness.”
When we ascribe “responsibility” for an injustice to a person or group, we may be saying that they deserve condemnation for inflicting that injustice, or we may be saying that they are duty-bound to rectify it. All schoolkids, regardless of their race, are responsible in that second sense for advancing justice, simply by virtue of being presumptive future citizens. No schoolchildren, regardless of their race, are responsible in the first sense for slavery, discrimination, and their lingering effects. The provisions of the law that Wallace-Wells quotes aim to affirm that last proposition. That’s the right side of the debate to be on.