An Open Letter Concerning HB564

Louisiana’s House Bill 564 isn’t quite as infamous as the devastating anti-transgender bills in states like Arkansas and Texas. But it is no less dangerous in its intent. The bill aims to prohibit teachers from, amongst other things, calling the United States “systemically racist” – and its ambiguous wording paves the way to potentially getting rid of any discussion around slavery and Jim Crow from school curriculums.

I sent this letter to the bill’s sponsor, Representative Garofalo, a week ago. I have not received a reply.

Dear Mr Garofalo,

I am writing to you about House Bill 564, which you are sponsoring for this legislative session. I think the idea of teaching that no race or gender is superior to another is admirable. However, I am concerned about the prohibition on teaching about systemic racism and sexism in America. There is no question that America has implemented policies designed to uplift one race over another, throughout our history:

  • The transatlantic slave trade was, of course, built on an idea that Black people are inferior to White people and therefore deserved servitude. In order to teach about this evil period in our history, we must address the racist concepts which were embedded into law by prominent figures such as Cotton Mather, Edward Rutledge, and even founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The link above discusses policies such as: “A law in 1691 [in Virginia] stipulated that white women who gave birth to mixed-race children would be fined or punished with five years of additional service, if they were indentured servants. Their children were forced to work as servants for thirty years.” This is the very definition of systemic, institutional racism, and free discussion of policies like this – –as well as the way they still affect communities of colour today – –is an important part of any history lesson.
  • Even after the Civil War, many states enacted harsh laws targeted at their Black residents. Louisiana was no exception – –the previous link discusses the “Black Codes” which were passed right after the war ended, and which were based on French colonial laws regarding slaves, called “codes noir”. These Black Codes became the basis for Jim Crow segregation, which restricted the privileges and movements of anyone who was thought to have even a drop of Black ancestry. One famous Black Codes-related case which took place in Louisiana itself was Plessy v Ferguson in 1896: four years prior, a mixed-race man named Homer Plessy, who was seven-eights White, attempted to ride in a White-only train car and was arrested. The Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the law against Plessy’s action, and Plessy himself was convicted – –merely for riding in a train car. This is yet another example of the way systemic racism has affected the lives of non-White Americans throughout our history, and something which is imperative to talk about in history classes. 1896 was just 125 years ago, which amounts to maybe four or five generations from the present; the wrongs enacted against Homer Plessy exist in recent memory. Jim Crow itself was not struck down until 1965, when the Voting Rights Act was passed – –and even then, interracial marriage only became legal across the nation in 1967, during my own parents’ lifetime (I am barely in my mid-twenties). The wounds left by these Black Codes cannot have healed over so quickly, and that too should be spoken about in classrooms.
  • Discussions of systemic racism are not complete without mentioning the near-total destruction of so many Indigenous communities across the United States. During the period of “Manifest Destiny” in the mid-to-late 19th century, Indigenous communities were targeted. The Wounded Knee massacre killed at least 150 Sioux people, although some estimates place the number of casualties as high as 300. Less than thirty years later, Native American children across the nation were stolen from their families and sent to abusive residential schools, where they were not allowed to speak their own languages or participate in their own customs out of fear of being beaten. The sheer extent of familial separation devastated Native communities. The previous link is a discussion of this, written poignantly by the daughter of a residential school survivor. Today, the median household income of Indigenous American families is $40,315, which is roughly $26,000 less than the median household income of White American families, and only slightly less than the median household income of Black American families. Native Americans who live on reservations often do so in extreme poverty – systemic poverty, because most of their lands are controlled by the United States government and thus are subject to long bureaucratic processes which impede participation in the current market. The link in the previous sentence explains it beautifully in a more longform way than this letter will allow.

I myself am Asian-American. Our communities have been discriminated against, too: barred from immigration to the United States until relatively recent memory, denied voting rights, and, in the case of Japanese-Americans, were interned under abysmal conditions during World War II. There is no non-White community in America which has not experienced systemic racism, and that is something we cannot ignore in school history lessons.

There are so many beautiful things about the United States, and undoubtedly we have made progress over our centuries of existence. Yet if we do not face, head-on, the ghastliest moments of our history – –if we do not promote free discussion of them, if we do not acknowledge that we still have so long a way to go in terms of achieving racial justice – –how can we progress even further? If we do not educate children about systemic racism and its current effects, how can we hope to ever uproot it from our institutions? Merely hiding from the presence of institutional racism will not make it disappear. The only thing which will accomplish that is learning about it – –equipping our children to confront and challenge it – –will.

Thank you for your time, Representative Garofalo. I hope my words stay with you.

Regards,

An Indian-American who cares about equality, justice, and historical truth.

––Aditi Ramaswamy