EDITOR'S NOTE

Color-coded

A second-grade assignment symbolizes how far we’ve come — and how far we have to go

One of the drawings from edHelper.com.
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A group of angry-looking men gather near a tree. Some look well dressed in hats and coats. Some carry clubs. From a rope tied to a branch hangs a limp, lifeless body, hands tied behind him.

It’s a gruesome but familiar scene in United States history, and an important one to remember and teach.

But imagine that scene depicted as a simplistic line drawing arriving home with your second-grader as a coloring assignment.

That’s what happened during Black History Month at Atlantic Beach Elementary.

“Any scene depicting a murder of any kind just seems inappropriate for coloring,” James Hill, the father of one of those second-graders, told The Florida Times-Union.

Teresa Flores is the teacher of the class, but Hill said he doesn’t know if she was aware of the assignment, saying the pictures could have been handed out by an assistant.

The pictures, including caricatures of minstrels and blackface in addition to the lynching, came from edHelper.com, a subscription website that provides supplemental lesson material for kindergarten through 12th grade. They’re part of 13 pages on slavery and Jim Crow laws that created government-sanctioned segregation in the South. According to EdHelper.com, the materials are for eighth- and ninth-graders and are not a coloring assignment.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the Times-Union an investigation should conclude this week and a recommendation will be made by the School Board’s April meeting.

How did this happen? Who is to blame? An investigation should answer these questions, but there’s more to examine here beyond pointing the finger for this particular stupidity.

Who would look at these pictures and deem them an appropriate coloring assignment — particularly an educator? That these images made it into the backpacks of second-graders shows a lack of sensitivity or understanding of the point of Black History Month.

Young students should be taught the hard lessons of our troubled past. But surely there are better ways to accomplish this.

One way is by visiting the “RACE: Are We So Different?” exhibit running through April 28 at the Museum of Science and History. The exhibit explores race and racism through the lens of history, science and lived experience.

Last week, Faye Harrison, a cultural anthropology professor at the University of Florida, gave a speech called “Race in the New Millennium & the Age of Obama” at MOSH. She asked whether race and racism are finally a thing of the past. Are we in a post-racial era?

She noted that Tony Ruiz started a change.org petition (bit.ly/StopLabels) urging people to stop promoting the question “What race are you?” in any capacity. His point is that reinforcing these categories contributes to scientific racism.

Although Harrison agrees that race is not a biological fact but a cultural construction, she’s not willing to concede all racial identifiers.

“I am a member of the human race and proud of it,” Harrison said. But she said she is part of a racialized history that invokes the baggage of 500 years. “Why should I deny that and pretend that I live in a utopia?”

She recounted the painful confusion during her own childhood of being denied things that white people took for granted — trying on clothes or hats at the store, eating in certain restaurants, swimming at some pools or beaches, attending certain schools. Was there something about her that would poison the water or taint the clothes?

She came of age when the meaning of race was being redefined. She asked questions and read books from the library. “I don’t remember it being part of the formal curriculum,” she said.

I guess that’s one small step in the right direction. At least we’re trying to teach these lessons, even if the delivery in some cases might be misguided.

Last week, Supreme Court justices debated whether certain parts of the Voting Rights Act are still necessary. The conservative members said even if the law once was badly needed, Congress could not justify continuing a measure that requires nine mostly southern states to seek clearance from Washington before changing their election laws.

Chief Justice John Roberts asked Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, “Is it the government’s submission that the citizens of the South are more racist than the citizens of the North?” Justice Antonin Scalia suggested the law amounts to "racial entitlements."

Justice Stephen G. Breyer called racial discrimination in voting “an old disease” that is still not fully cured.

“We’re just as segregated today on a de facto basis as during the Jim Crow era,” Harrison said. Although the structures of racial privilege still exist, they are subtler than the signs that once separated drinking fountains and bathrooms, such as the racial disparities in bank loans and mortgages.

“They’re not really that subtle,” Harrison said. “They’re quite flagrant to some of us.”

One thing the “RACE” exhibit illustrates is that race and racism were created to perpetuate power disparities. And although we’ve made great strides, those disparities still exist.

It’s a painful enough lesson to learn — without having to color in a lynching.

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