Racism is a National Emergency

Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children's Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, July 2017)

For this year’s Seuss birthday, an excerpt from Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books (Oxford UP, 2017). The thesis: Support a US Anti-Racist Education Act because racism is a national emergency that threatens our democracy.


But first, and with thanks to The Conscious Kid for keeping the conversation going, here are some …

answers to questions about Seuss and racism


Second, a brief excerpt from “A Manifesto for Anti-Racist Children’s Literature,” which is the conclusion to Was the Cat in the Hat Black? (2017) — a book written prior to the ascension of Trump to the US Presidency, but published during the regime’s first six months.

Support a US Anti-Racist Education Act because racism is a national emergency that threatens our democracy.

As Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election has made plain, pandering to racists can propel a sociopathic con artist to the presidency. His openly bigoted speeches and the 46 percent of voters who supported him have made racist ideas mainstream again, and have led other countries to worry about the stability of the United States. Since his election, hate crimes have been on the rise. Trump’s White House has included White supremacist Steve Bannon (former chairman of Breitbart News, a racist, misogynist, xenophobic “news” outlet) as senior advisor; White supremacist Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, and Islamophobe Michael Flynn as National Security Advisor. Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin and disinterest in maintaining the NATO alliance could destabilize Europe, itself facing the rise of comparably dangerous nativist figures—from the forces behind Brexit (Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson), to Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Timo Soini in Finland, and Viktor Orban in Hungary. The spread of racist political parties, to say nothing of the many other dangers humanity faces, amplifies the danger of elevating to power a thin-skinned demagogue who flirts openly with using America’s nuclear arsenal, and who sought to expand access to nuclear weapons abroad. Within the United States, President Trump will be able to loosen restrictions on gun purchases, and appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade, revoke gays’ recently won right to marry, and roll back civil rights for people of color. He can ban Muslims from entering the country, and advise the Justice Department to harass those groups and organizations he deems threatening.

Trump’s presidency, his supporters, and the racist violence they enable all demand a response—an Anti-Racist Education Act. While this is obviously not something a Trump administra- tion would consent to, it is something his successor could pursue. There is a precedent for such an initiative. Following the Soviet Union’s successful launch of the first space satellite (Sputnik) in 1957, the US government responded with the National Defense Education Act (1958), intended to improve postsecondary edu- cation so that America could compete with Soviet technology. A federal program along the lines of the National Defense Education Act, but devoted to fighting racism at all levels of education, would strengthen our democracy and provide an example to others working to stop the international racist right. By underwriting the purchase of diverse children’s books and anti-racism education, a national anti-racist program would be patriotic, affirming America’s commitment to its ideals, helping children resist the Trump Effect, and decreasing the likelihood that the next generation will need to cope with its revival. As Paula Young Lee puts it, “Even as far-right populism continues its global rise, the written word has become vibrant with danger precisely because it has the potential to challenge the mono-think tendencies of hyper-partisanship and authoritarianism.”


Third, some context.

When I wrote that in 2016, there were some key differences with the published version.

For instance, the copyedited manuscript begins this section as follows:

As Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign has made plain, pandering to racists can nearly propel a sociopathic con artist to the presidency. Had Trump succeeded, he would have posed a threat to the stability and security of the United States and the world. Indeed, his openly bigoted speeches and the 40 per cent of voters who supported him have made racist ideas mainstream again, and led other countries to worry about the stability of the U.S. However, had Trump’s White supremacist campaign led him into the White House, the prognosis would be much more dire.

At the copyediting phase, in the wake of the election, I had to revise that. The situation of course is now much more dire. This country has an entire political party committed to a Big Lie, White Supremacy, and the pursuit of power by any means they can.

The truth is one way to fight the Big Lie and all the little lies that underwrite it. Teach children the truth about the history of this country, and not the White-supremacist “land of opportunity” / “land of immigrants” lies that so many of us grew up learning. Instead, teach Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You (2020). Teach Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Jean Mendoza, and Debbie Reese’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People (2019). Check out The Conscious Kid’s Resources page for more ideas.

We need to raise a new generation less susceptible to the lies currently infecting the minds of at least 74 million adults — those who, in the 2020 presidential election supported a narcissistic, White-supremacist autocrat who facilitated a mass death event.

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