“He asked Congress to pass legislation…”

This student was writing about the ’60s, so maybe she was talking about Robert or John Kennedy, or President Johnson, but it might have been someone else. Perhaps identifying the noun referred to by the pronoun is unnecessary here. Let’s go on:

“He asked Congress to pass legislation requiring public places to eliminate races.”

Okay, I knew what she meant. She was talking about Civil Rights legislation and the abolition of Jim Crow laws and de facto segregation, especially in the South.

I don’t think she meant to say that someone was asking for legislation that would do away with races in public places, even if she meant “races” to refer to human groupings defined by certain physical characteristics. “Race” is a societal construct, not an actual thing, and our lives would certainly be simpler and probably more just if we could eliminate the concept of race as an identifier and just appreciate people as fellow human beings. I don’t think Congress is capable of bringing this about, though—not even the Congresses of the ’60s and ’70s, when representatives actually tried to represent.

I’m sure she didn’t mean eliminating people of race, since that would be everybody, or at least everybody who ventured into a public place. Would government troops representing public places mow down all those defiant humans who dared to take a stroll in the park, or drive down a highway, or go to school? (There seem to be some people today who think the government has plans as dire as that, but let’s not discuss hysterical paranoia here.) A nation of voluntary and involuntary agoraphobic hermits doesn’t seem very workable, especially in the days before Facebook, iPhones, cable television, NetFlix, and online shopping.

Eliminating people’s races without eliminating the people would entail, what, various plastic surgeries and complete bleaching (or deep-dying) of everyone’s hair and skin to a uniform shade? A windfall for cosmetic surgeons and cosmetologists, perhaps, but not really practicable. And if “in public places” have to do the eliminating, then would that be public hospitals, or dye specialists hired by public entities and working al fresco? I’m not sure, anyway, that that would accomplish much. We’d find some other basis for discrimination, and meanwhile we would have lost all the varieties of beauty in the human family…

The sentence could also be referring to a termination of sports contests open to the public: the Olympics, perhaps? Just the racing events, of course. Diving and ski-jumping competitions, figure skating and gymnastics, weight-lifting and hockey—those would still be okay. I would probably enjoy the revised Olympics well enough, not being much of a fan of racing anyway. But I’m sure the lovers of speed, and the gamblers, would be mightily disappointed.

Seems to me she really was talking about Lyndon Baines Johnson and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It didn’t eliminate race, or races, although we might argue that it eschewed the concept of races, in favor of a recognition of our common human race—but it did bar discrimination on the basis of race in all public places and by all public entities. Only a hundred years after the Civil War. And nearly 50 years later, we still haven’t really gotten used to the idea that race cannot determine opportunity, dignity, or rights—or at least, if what we see in the media is an indication, a frightening number of Americans still haven’t gotten used to it. Maybe we’re going to have to call in the cosmetic surgeons and dye specialists after all.

I guess I shouldn’t worry that my students seem to be slow learners. Most of them “get” the material in a mere four months.

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

3 responses to ““He asked Congress to pass legislation…”

  • philosophermouseofthehedge

    That’s one finish line that seems farther away than ever.

  • davidstrachan611

    “Be to their virtues very kind/and to their faults a little blind” – do students need this avuncular approach?

  • RAB

    Good advice, aye, David, and really good words to live by in general. But hard to decide how blind to be if they’re going to develop verbal awareness as well as competence. My formula is Constructive comments, Supportive suggestions, Compulsive corrections of basic errors, and a Wimpy “wordy” or “unclear” or “not what you mean” in the margin instead of frankness when it comes to style and clarity. (I like them too much, and wish them too well, to let too much slide.) Then I HOPE they come in to talk about the marginalia. When they come in (not a huge percentage), I ask them to tell me what they were trying to say. Alas, the answer too often is “Actually I’m not sure!” I think a lot of their writing problems actually stem from that: an uncertainty about what they’re trying to say, or why they’re trying to say it. Students who are clear in their own minds about an idea or a situation usually write competent and error-free prose, and sometimes also energetic and engaging prose. How to persuade them (and help them) to get that clarity before they decide they’ve written the final draft, is the big challenge.

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