Your lips say ‘school prayer,’ but your eyes tell me ‘desegregation’

Part of the problem with arguments about “prayer in schools” is that quite often they don’t seem to really be about prayer in schools.

The anger and resentment over the loss of cultural hegemony the 1962 school prayer decision has come to symbolize seems to trace back earlier than 1962. About eight years earlier, I’d guess.

Which is just to say, more or less, that I suspect something like this:


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LBCF, No. 181: ‘Meet the Steeles’
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LBCF, No. 181: ‘Meet the Steeles’
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LBCF, No. 181: ‘Meet the Steeles’

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  • Lori

    Did you not see things like the Tea Party anti-“Obamacare” signs showing Obama as a witch doctor with a bone through his nose?

  • Tricksterson

    I don’t remember homeschooling being a thing until at least the mid-eighties.  I think it’s explosion in popularity came about more as a response to the evolution debate, although not all homeschoolers are Christians (had a couple of Wiccan friends who were considering homeschooling their kid a couple of decades ago) or even religious.

  • Tricksterson

    Oh I have no doubbt that type of person has a whole list of outrage substitutes.

  • markedward

    I didn’t; that is horrendous.

  • GSS indicates that back in the 1990s among Whites, only about 1 in 5 of those who objected to the SCOTUS ruling on school prayer said they would object to sending their kid to a racially half-and-half school, compared to 1 in 8 of those who were OK with the SCOTUS ruling. Though there’s some slight correlation, I don’t think the sociological data supports your Venn diagram.

  • Carstonio

    Again, the chart shouldn’t be read that literally. The core complaint about Brown was not desegregation but the undermining of white hegemony – these folks wanted society’s institutions to treat whites better than other groups.

  • JohnK

    I personally don’t feel that the Tea Party is inherently racist, or even that all Tea Party people are (the term is so nebulous that it’s almost not worth ascribing too many personal traits to them — it’s like trying to make a general statement about the personalities of “evangelicals” or “libertarians” — it’s going to be too heavily shaded by your perception of them as people).

    However, there is a disturbing trend of racist imagery and argument used by many people who hold positions of influence in various Tea Party-affiliated organizations. Apart from the signs like the one Lori describes, one specific example (which Invisible Neutrino alluded to earlier) was the “Obamaphone” campaign ad run by the  Tea Party Victory Fund in the past election. In it, Obama was accused of using taxpayer money to give phones to people (blacks) in exchange for their votes. (They concealed the fact that the federal program providing phone service to low-income Americans was enacted by President Ronald Reagan almost 30 years ago, and that Obama has only continued a policy that has been reliably supported by both Bushes and Clinton, and probably would have been continued by Romney if he had been elected.) 

    If you are not an American, or maybe if you’re not black, you might not see the racial undertones to that, but what you have to understand is that many politicians in our history have portrayed blacks as being the undeserving recipients of government largesse at the expense of white Americans. It was a way of pitting poor whites against poor blacks, creating the impression that the main reason a lot of low-income whites struggle in life is because of their tax payments are redistributed among (presumably lazy, unemployed) blacks by corrupt politicians.

    (There are other examples, of course — Obama being referred to as “the Food Stamp President” during the campaign, Glenn Beck describing Obama’s policies as “reparations”-inspired — I just chose the one that was easiest for you to check.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    I heard a race-based criticism of Obama today that I think is actually valid.

    His father’s African. His mother’s white. Lots of his formative years were spent outside the US.

    He doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up black in the US.

    Michelle Obama does. Their daughters do, though that’s been blunted a lot by being the kids of a big-name politician. Barack Obama doesn’t. Slavery and Jim Crow aren’t in his history the way they are in Michelle’s.

    (The person who voiced this criticism was, it happens, black.)

  • JohnK

    See, I kind of get that (although it does get uncomfortably close to the whole “you’re not black enough because X” thing which just makes me sick). There are some things that you only get if you grow up in the US full-time, in a lower-income family. And living in Hawaii is itself a major difference-maker — the racial dynamics are very different from the mainland. 

    But on another hand, that’s not exactly fair, either When it comes to the societal factors relating to being black, no one knows or cares if you have a white mother or if your father came from Africa in 1960 or 1760. Strangers don’t run a DNA test on you or look up our lineage on a genealogy chart, any more than people study anthropology or theology before lumping together Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus (groups that are much more distinct). They see the color of your skin and their expectations and behavior are set. 

    I know for me one of the biggest things that I noticed was the embrace of the birther movement. It’s something that a lot of successful blacks have to deal with to some extent — the classmate or (worse) the teacher who simply can’t believe that a black person can be successful in academia, business, or politics without having cheated somehow. 

    (This doesn’t happen only to blacks though — Marion Barry’s offensive comments about Asian-American business owners is an example of the same kind of sentiment — in this case by a black leader against another minority group.)

  •  You want to be taken more figuratively, don’t use conventions from mathematics to risk the attention of mathematicians. ☺

    (In the 1990s, objection to prayer in schools was 2:1 among whites objecting to their kids going to 50-50 mixed schools.)

  • EllieMurasaki


  • ReaderJohn

    Lord knows I don’t have much patience with Republican shibboleths these days, but the accusation that ostensible concerns about secularization are veiled concerns about racial integration have always struck me, ironically, as rank bigotry. Drawing some overlapping circles of sets and subsets doesn’t change that one iota.
    Even Fred tacitly admits that Christian school didn’t start blooming until after 1962. Only uncharitable speculation appears to back his suspicions.

  • arcseconds

     OK — it’s just that you were causing me to start questioning my entire existence :]

  • Carstonio

     How is that bigoted? Fred’s follow-up post explains his point about the chart. The folks who slam secularism want preferential treatment for their religion and its adherents. The folks who slam desegregation and civil rights want preferential treatment for people of their ethnicity. These are two different versions of the same hegemonic argument, and it’s no accident that they’re most often made by the same people.

  • Weird. I never had anyone say anything but good about the Triangle’s public transit (or even specific branches thereof).

    But then, I spent my seven years living in Durham (not predominantly black, but notably so) and working in Chapel Hill (rather noticeably not black, but…well, I’ll get to that). North Raleigh, on the other hand, was very different. It, too, tends to swing in the same (leftish) direction politically as a county (Wake), but it’s a lot fuzzier there socially. Was this perhaps a declaration from up north?
    I mean, I had a friend I worked with who was warned by the folks in North Raleigh that Chapel Hill (where he was moving and would then work with me and relay this to me) was filled with “Liberals™”. I always thought this was pretty funny (as did he) because he was gay, which, if nothing else, tends to sway his opinions away from–oh, I don’t know, the people who don’t have much nice to say about who he is. The people I knew of up there who would talk about restaurants getting “darker” as the clientele changed, or find drawing swastikas in the dust on someone’s car funny, as well as openly use the N-word didn’t really help my impression of some of northern Raleigh’s social climate. I also heard more “don’t go into Durham” from up there (yes, Durham is the most racially diverse of the three cities, by far).

    Back in Chapel Hill, we’d get tag teamed by a couple accusing us of racism for having Dreams from My Father in the “African American Studies” section, who denied to me that it was about growing up as a child of two races. I admitted I had only gathered that was an important element and had not read it myself, so perhaps this was true. If they didn’t have a habit of doing it to me, I’d almost find it cute the way the local folk were so devoid of obvious discrimination in town that they had to manufacture it. But then I guess bookstores in college towns are known hotbeds of conservatism (???).Then again, again, in Durham I got my first person-to-person experience of explicit racism from some people I ended up working with. I have no idea why they decided to live and work in Durham.

    All that said: I was nearly a teacher in North Carolina. By some miracle, I was assigned to the group on the issue of prayer in school when I was a Teaching Fellow for the purposes of a seminar-class. I don’t know how that happened, but it was a relative superstorm of fecal matter.

    After researching the project as directed (and spending half my time explaining the realities I was acutely aware of to my two Christian groupmates, who eventually saw how things are, legally speaking) and “strangely” finding nothing that endorsed prayer in school via actual study or history, we made our presentation and took a vote. First, we asked who wanted to allow prayer in school, and the great majority (if not the entirety?) of the class raised their hands. After reading off a litany of abuses performed in the name of not only Christians against Jews in schools but even denominations against denominations (and I mean Baptist on Methodist kinds of splits, not Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or Catholics other sects that are most radically different, or at least seen to be), explaining the laws and judicial precedent as they stand, we took another vote.

    Some people (thankfully a severely reduced number), intent on being teachers, still wanted to change the law about prayer in school. All I could hope is that they were kept far, far away from any children. No one who thinks discriminatory abuse is acceptable loss for pronouncing their faith by force or public decree should be anywhere near developing humans, for the safety of those who would be abused and for the sake of the social well-being of society.

    (They proceeded afterward to refer to it as specifically my group and complain–on a class messageboard, rather than in person–that I (not “we”) had not covered “both sides” of the issue. Until someone pointed out that the assignment WAS to pick a side anyway–and we did address the fact that, quite honestly, there are no studies on the issue endorsing it, nor any information to encourage it).It is, however, worth noting that this was a group of white people in a mountain town, which makes you feel like other races are a mythological concept if you stay there long enough. One of my friends counted the black people he saw when we visited to tour the campus. I think he got to five over the whole weekend. I don’t know that the group of (all white) future teachers I was around would’ve even had the time to think of segregation considering up there it wouldn’t be necessary. It was culture shock every time I came back down the mountain.

  • Racism is sometimes best measured in terms of what isn’t said and done. Who stands up in Tea Party gatherings to say “We won’t pay for this racist crap! We want the people who did it fired, and not rehired by any group associated with our cause!”? Who tells prominent right-wing groups “I won’t give you money because you keep hiring racist SOBs who bring the cause of Christ and the best of America’s heritage to disgrace, again and again!”?

    The Democratic Party has some deeply entrenched racist elements. It also some long-time anti-racist (and anti-other prejudice) elements, and I can point you at clearly voiced criticisms of racist actions among alleged moderates and liberals, and action intended specifically to reduce racist influence and make Democratic politics more inclusive and representative. Now point us at anything of the sort among Tea Party, people who actually care enough to do anything about it.

    I do not expect a long list.

  • Even if Fred’s right, it seems there are a lot of better and more productive arguments against school prayer than, “I think the people who support it are just, deep in their hearts which I can see better than they can, racist.”

  • Leaving aside questions of both optimal rhetorical tactics and optimal ways to oppose school prayer, I will re-emphasize that there’s an important difference between judging my heart and judging the cultural norms my behavior reinforces.

    The former is none of anybody’s damned business; the latter is a legitimate subject of community concern.

    Insisting on framing discussions of racism in terms of the contents of people’s hearts is problematic.

  • Carstonio

    Not only problematic but also mistaken. Racism and sexism are systemic concepts. 

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    God forbid. I’m too old to enjoy playing “what if arcseconds’ existence is just a collective hallucination?” so let’s shake hands and carry on with the regularly scheduled discussion :)

  • ohiolibrarian

    Racist Tea Party signs

    More racist and violent Tea Party signs

    Yet more

    They certainly link hate for the President often expressed with racism with their supposed “Christianity”. I can’t imagine how it would be possible to miss all this.

  • Oh god, that RINO season sign? What genius thought putting gun sights on a sign like that was a smart idea?

  • Darkrose

    I’ve heard that one before. I think it’s “blacker than thou” bullshit.

    What matters to me is that Barack Obama self-identifies as black. He’s well aware that if he got stopped by the Cambridge Police, they weren’t going to stop to let him explain that his mother’s white, so really, he’s Driving While Half-Black. The idea that blackness requires adherence to a specific life story and that any variations of that make you not black is projection by people who aren’t comfortable with who they are.

  • Carstonio

    The Tea Partiers I’ve encountered, and the ones in the interviews I’ve read, use deceptively polite versions of the same language. They stubbornly insisted that health care reform was another welfare program, and all their arguments about government turned into rants about public assistance or foreign aid. Obama is a convenient lightning rod for them, not because he’s a black man but because he’s an educated black man in a position of authority.

  • Matri

    Again, the chart shouldn’t be read that literally. The core complaint
    about Brown was not desegregation but the undermining of white hegemony –
    these folks wanted society’s institutions to treat whites better than
    other groups.

    So, like keeping The Others separated from the white hegemony. Separate drink fountains? Separate schools?

    The front of the bus reserved only for whites?

  • The_L1985

     Considering that this was That Town In Alabama With The Bug Statue (you know the one), your analogy is perfectly apt.

    We also learned about how atheists want to destroy all that is good in America, people worship “voodoo” because they have demons in them, and the Rapture is coming soon.  Also, nobody liked then-president-elect Clinton, and being as young as I was, I didn’t fully understand why–something about the military?

  • The_L1985

    There was also one that asked for the difference between the White House and the DC Zoo.  It answered its own question: because the zoo has an African Lion and…you can guess the other half.

    The Tea Party is pretty nasty about race.

  • The_L1985

    If Florida schools start “teaching the controversy” instead of teaching actual science, my children will be pulled OUT of the science classes then and there.  Does that count as homeschooling in response to the evolution debate?

  • Carstonio

    I mean that segregation wasn’t the ultimate goal. It was a highly visible symbol of the hegemony. Remove the power of whites to maintain separation from The Other and keep all the best things for themselves, and whiteness arguably ceases to have any meaning.

  • EllieMurasaki

    So-called ‘white trash’ and Harvard WASPs are differently white. Someone who immigrated from Japan to the US in their lifetime and someone whose ancestors did so before WWII are differently Japanese. Barack and Michelle Obama are differently black.

    I am not making a judgment call on which is better, or whiter/Japaneser/blacker respectively, and I note that the person I heard this from did not make a judgment call on whether Barack is black enough (at least not in my hearing). But we’re talking about people in the same broad racial category with vastly different life experience re being a member of that category, and I think it’s important to remember that Barack’s experience of being black mostly does not map to Michelle’s or the Obama daughters’ or Keisha Washington’s down in Birmingham.

  • Icegreenmetallic

    WWII in Europe ended in 1944 so large numbers of troops had been returning for over a year by January 1, 1946. Just sayin’.

  • Erm, the official date of the armistice (V-E day) is in May, 1945.

  •  I live in Jacksonville, NC, and I have never heard of this.  Guess I learned something new today.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart


  • When I was growing up, I was told, over and over, that the
    public-school students over at Pinedale Elementary weren’t allowed to
    pray in school and got in trouble for wearing Christian T-shirts.

    You know, I’d love to learn who it was that first manufactured that kind of ZOMG BANNING PRAYER urban legend and popularized it.

  • P J Evans

     And a lot of Vietnam-era veterans are still swearing that Jane Fonda is a traitor, even after she’s apologized and said it was a stupid thing to do. They haven’t finished their war yet.

  • Daughter

    Michelle’s experience doesn’t really map to her daughter’s (she grew up in a working class Chicago family in the first post-Civil Rights generation; they’re growing up as daughters of the U.S. president.) Saying that everyone’s experience is different (true) doesn’t make Barack Obama “differently black” in the way that you seem to be implying (since you put the experiences of Michelle Obama, their daughters, and a random woman in Alabama in the same category, with him on the outside).

    My family descends from slavery and Jim Crow – but with a German great-grandfather on one side and an Irish great-grandmother on the other, I’ve had plenty of people question my “blackness” because I look pretty “other.”

    Meanwhile, my husband, of whom there is no question about being African-American, is from a family that descends from free blacks living in Rhode Island back in the 19th century.

    I knew black families in Boston whose ancestors came to the U.S. from Haiti and Cape Verde in the 19th century. They were never slaves in the U.S., and never officially lived under Jim Crow.

    As someone once quipped, the same criticisms the “blacker than thou” crowd use against Obama would eliminate Frederick Douglass (biracial) and Shirley Chisholm and Stokely Carmichael (children of West Indian immigrants) from
    the African-American community.

  • EllieMurasaki

    you put the experiences of Michelle Obama, their daughters, and a random woman in Alabama in the same category

    I did?

    If I’d said red isn’t yellow or green or blue, would I be saying that yellow and green and blue are the same color?

  • Daughter

     You started by saying that you found the following criticism valid:
    He doesn’t know what it’s like to grow up black in the US.

    Michelle Obama does. Their daughters do, though that’s been blunted a
    lot by being the kids of a big-name politician. Barack Obama doesn’t.

    And in your follow-up comments, you said that while everyone is different and it’s not a judgment call, “I think it’s important to remember that Barack’s experience of being
    black mostly does not map to Michelle’s or the Obama daughters’ or
    Keisha Washington’s down in Birmingham.” The way that’s worded – “A differs from B, C and D” rather than “A differs from B, which differs from C, etc.” certainly sounds like A is a separate category. Especially if read in light of your previous comment.

    And seriously, Keisha Washington?

  • EllieMurasaki

    Like John Smith only black and female.

  • Daughter

     It comes across more like a stereotyped name than a generic one.

  • EllieMurasaki

    And ‘John Smith’ doesn’t?

  • Daughter

    There’s no implied ethnicity in John Smith (other than perhaps, “from an English speaking country” – but the person could be of any race). Although I’m not sure this is the case anymore, “John Smith” originally became used as a synonym for a generic man because for a long time, John was the most common male first name in English, and Smith was the most common last name.

    Keisha Washington is hardly the most African-American female name, nor has it ever been. I think it might have been the book Freakanomics that noted that the most common baby names among African-Americans trail the most common baby names among white Americans by about a decade – which at the time the book was written, was probably Ashley.

  • Daughter

     It didn’t sound like you were saying the others were the same, just similar, akin to “red is not turquoise, indigo or cobalt.”

  • Daughter

     To add to this point: when I’ve heard white male names stereotyped, it’s been either a stereotyped rich WASP (e.g., “Bradley Harrington III”), or a stereotyped good ol’ boy (e.g., “Billy Bob Wilson.”). Very different from the generic John Smith.

  • Daughter

     … and even I just indulged in stereotyping, even if it was to make a point about stereotyping, with the term “good ol’ boy” rather than “poor or working class white Southerner.”

  • zendodeb

    I’m sure racism is a factor for some. But you are practicing the same thing. All (or most) “home-schoolers” are racist. Fill in that blank with another group, and see how it sounds… Jews, Muslims, Wiccans, Heathens, Italians, Irish, whatever…  Prejudging an entire person based on one aspect of their life or inclusion in 1 group is wrong, even when you are the one doing it.

    I am equally sure that some parents are appalled by the quality of education offered by some public schools. Not to mention the level of violence encountered.

    So hold to your prejudice (against home-schooling) and feel good pretending it is better than any other kind of prejudice. 

  • Even some of those who don’t like her have said some of the trash talking is going way overboard (such as claiming John Kerry and Jane Fona actively campaigned for the Communists or some such rot).

  • Anomony

    Your Ven fails, you would need a third circle of people who pretend. The way diagram is now constructed you can have only people upset about both decisions.

    Add a third circle and populate it with people who feign being upset in order to further their agenda.