Opinion: All politics, and systemic bias, are local

Staff file photo by C.B. Schmelter / The chalkboard inside a classroom at Chattanooga Center for Creative Arts in 2019.

We say this often because it's true: All politics are local. It's true again today as we marvel at how these seemingly disparate things come together: The white supremacy thread that ran throughout the Jan. 6 insurrection; Tennessee's and other Republican majority-led states' efforts to suppress not just voting rights but Black history teaching; and the recent findings of a Tennessee Education Research Alliance study showing that Black and male teachers in Tennessee consistently receive lower classroom observation scores - even when they have similar teaching qualifications and similar student achievement growth scores as those of their white and female peers.

Let's start with the study, which tiptoes around the obvious - implicit bias and systemic racism.

Not until the final findings page does the study note: "This finding raises concerns that the observation score gap reflects some form of systemic bias - that is, that Black and White (or male and female) teachers receive systematically different observation scores even when they have similar student achievement growth scores."

Even with that, the next sentences read, "Bias in this sense does not require individual observers to be biased against particular groups of teachers. Nonrandom sorting of students within schools ... could be a source of bias ... . Another source of bias could be the observation rubrics themselves ... . Further investigation to understand the sources of these gaps is key ... ."

Why so much tiptoeing? It is important to remember that Tennessee's nearly all-white and supermajority Republican General Assembly in May passed a last-minute, surprise bill prohibiting any publicly funded school from teaching "critical race theory."

First, CRT is a college law school exercise that evolved from civil rights scholars to examine social, cultural and legal issues relating to race and racism. It is not taught in our schools. And it is not the same as the Black history courses that are taught in our schools.

But since our schools now are threatened with losing funding and teachers fear sanctions if what they do teach seems to a student, a parent or a lawmaker to be straying into systemic racism, who would risk it? It's a good bet may of the lessons touching on cultural issues will just rest quietly in the folder marked "Oops, we didn't have time to get to this."

It's also important to note that Tennessee didn't have an original idea about it. CRT became the darling of the right wing as an outrage inciter and fundraising tool after then-President Donald Trump in September 2020 signed an executive order misleadingly titled "Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping." What the order actually did was ban training that addresses concepts such as implicit and unconscious bias, institutional, systemic and structural racism, and privileges associated with dominant culture traits, like male privilege or white privilege.

Or female teacher privilege? But we digress.

Tennessee and other rightwing-led states raced to plagiarize the wording from Trump's executive order, tailored of course for schools, state offices and policies.

When Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, introduced the Tennessee measure as an amendment to an education rules bill he was carrying, he told members of the House Education Administration Committee: "Today, subversive factions are seeking to undermine our unique form of government, of the people, by the people and for the people."

His reference to "subversive factions" brings us to the Jan. 6 insurrection when Confederate flags and Trump banners waved wildly as a mob swollen with subversive groups and their followers, including the Proud Boys, QAnon, Three Percenters, Oath Keepers and other white supremacist or extremist groups, stormed the Capitol to beat police, break windows, ransack offices, hunt for Democratic leaders and threaten to hang then-Vice President Mike Pence, whom Trump minutes earlier had just denounced.

Don't you wonder if discussing this particular bit of "subversive" and divisive culture war history in schools might trigger a funding yank from Ragan and his ilk?

Sure, ostensibly Jan. 6 was about the election, but it was an election that the man who had constantly kowtowed to white supremacists had lost.

And Trump whipped them up to "fight like hell or you're not going to have a country anymore."

The almost all-white mob - clearly feeling entitled - pulled out their crowbars, sledgehammers, ropes, walkie-talkies to point their flagpoles like spears and break into the Capitol to terrorize both lawmakers and rest of us watching in shock on our TVs.

And speaking of white privilege, this mob - despite all that violence, terror and damage - fully expected to walk right back out with grins on their faces. And they did.

Had this mob been mostly Black, would that have happened? Don't count on it. When Black Lives Matter protesters converged in Washington, D.C., the summer before the Capitol riot, D.C. police used military-style tactics, tear gas and helicopters even as the National Guard patrolled the streets. More than 300 Black Lives Matter protesters - none of whom broke into the Capitol or Senate chambers or erected a gallows complete with noose - were arrested. That's nearly five times the 61 people arrested on Jan. 6.

Our lesson for today, Tennessee students, is: Can we say implicit bias and systemic racism?