There was a time not all that long ago (indeed, my parents were children) when it was illegal for Black students to attend my alma mater, Little Rock Central High School.

Now, thanks to actions by my home state’s ambitious new governor and her rubber-stamp legislative supermajority, it may be illegal for students there to study the full historical context of how Central High came to be a literal landmark of the Civil Rights Movement.

On August 11, just days before most school districts in Arkansas were to begin classes for the year, curriculum directors across the state received last-minute notice from the Arkansas Department of Education that the new Advanced Placement African American Studies class would not count toward state graduation requirements and that the state would no longer cover the costs for students in the class to take the AP exam.

Spokespeople for Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ administration went even further in subsequent statements, implying that the course may be illegal in the Natural State: “Arkansas law contains provisions regarding prohibited topics. Without clarity, we cannot approve a pilot that may unintentionally put a teacher at risk of violating Arkansas law,” one statement said.

Sanders – the former Trump White House Press Secretary and daughter of former Arkansas Gov. (and Baptist-preacher-turned-politician-turned-weight-loss-guru-turned-right-wing-TV-host) Mike Huckabee – ran a campaign for governor last fall that incorporated lots of incendiary rhetoric about fighting “wokeness” and racial “indoctrination” in the state’s classrooms and libraries. Just hours after taking office, Sanders signed an executive order that purported to “prohibit indoctrination and Critical Race Theory in schools.”

She and her allies in the Republican-dominated Arkansas General Assembly then rushed through a massive overhaul of the state’s public education system that gives away taxpayer funds to cover tuition at private schools – many of them fundamentalist Christian schools or segregationist “academies” founded in the 1960s and 70s as a reaction to public school integration and busing. The legislation also includes culture-war language further enshrining Sanders’ culture war pogroms into state law.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, state officials sent a presentation to school districts in May with guidance on applying the new law to educational materials. It reportedly urges reviewers to ask themselves questions like: “Does the content perpetuate ‘scapegoating’ by assigning fault, blame, bias to an individual or group based on color, creed, race, ethnicity, sex, age, or other characteristics protected by law?” It also addresses the teaching of “divisive concepts” around race or other characteristics protected in federal civil rights law, and it provides examples that the agency had identified of educational materials that supposedly violate these rules.

The examples of verboten racial “indoctrination” the presentation reportedly cites? One came from a training course for elementary school math teachers and asked them to “understand the roles of power, privilege and oppression in the history of mathematics education and be equipped to question existing educational systems that produce inequitable learning experiences and outcomes for students.” The other, also from a training program for staff, asserted: “Culturally competent professionals acknowledge and continually examine the influence of culture, race, power and privilege and how that influence manifests itself in their personal and professional decisions.”

So, in Sanders’ brave new educational world, the mere act of introspection regarding one’s own racial biases, and how those biases may have been collectively expressed over the years, is illegal “indoctrination.”

Anyone who has studied the history of the American Civil Rights Movement – and the hundreds of preceding years of race-based, heritable, chattel human enslavement followed by the terroristic Jim Crow regime – understands that bias is not only deeply ingrained in every human soul, but also in the societal structures that those humans band together to create. This is effectively the same thing as acknowledging original sin. Any Christian (as Sanders claims to be) should instinctively understand this.

Fortunately – and despite my immense relative privilege as a white, cisgender male, Protestant, upper-middle-class kid – this is a concept I came to understand deeply during my time at Little Rock Central. My knowledge of the overwhelmingly pathetic racial history of most white “Christians” in the South (and other parts of the country) causes me to be disappointed, but not surprised at the behavior of Sanders and her supporters.

Fortunately, like the Arkansans who fought segregation in 1957, my alma mater is not accepting Sanders’ Orwellian frame. Central High – along with several other schools in the state – said last week that they would defy the governor and teach the class anyway in this school year.

Here’s to breaking unjust laws. Thanks be to God.

To learn more about Central High, 1957 and the role of Little Rock’s Second Baptist Church downtown in the integration crisis, listen to Good Faith Media’s six-part narrative podcast, “A Second Language.”

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