Nonprofit Mississippi News Von Gordon has been encouraging Mississippians to discuss race for most of the past two decades. He was a University of Mississippi student who organized the first Statewide Student Summit about Race. Gordon, now 42, is the executive director at the Alluvial Collective. He was previously the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation. Through educational events such as seminars, mentoring high school students, oral histories assistance, and mentorship, the nonprofit seeks to build stronger communities in Mississippi. Discussions of race and racism in Mississippi are being threatened during this session. The House approved Senate Bill 2113 last week. It seeks to ban critical race theory from public schools. Now, Gov. Now, Tate Reeves will sign the legislation. Teachers across Mississippi are eagerly awaiting to learn how this legislation will affect their ability to teach racism and race in Mississippi. Mississippi Today interviewed Gordon last week for “Mississippi in the Know”, a series that offers free breakfast conversations with policy specialists. This interview has been edited for length and condensed. Gordon spoke about Mississippi’s school desegregation and how it inspired Derrick Bell to write critical race theory. Molly Minta. Derrick Bell was one of the founding fathers of critical race theory. He worked as a legal representative for the NAACP legal defence fund and actually litigated a case regarding school desegregation in Leake County. He was really influenced by his experiences in that case and the academic work that he did later to create critical race theory. We would be honored if you could share some of your experiences. Von Gordon: I love this definition. Lee Anne Bell explains it in a book on teaching for social justice. She writes, “Critical Race Theory analyzes and challenges main narratives in history, law, and popular culture that upholds the status quo.” Counter storytelling is a major part of their approach. It was really important that Dr. Bell spent so much time here. His thinking about the theory was very interesting. He is in Mississippi now doing work in the 1960s. This is a chance to assist with desegregation in Leake County schools. It is interesting to note that the Rosenwald School was already in place and was of great value to the community. Even in the face of gross underfunding, and frankly, gross segregation, it had been a great asset to the community. It was important that Blacks in this community, in particular, had an equal education experience. This could have been fixed by the Legislature, but it didn’t. Leake County residents were worried that desegregating schools would mean that their valuable asset, which they had invested so much in, might be lost. This had created a lot opportunity for their children and (really) a lot of opportunities for them. One thing I have learned about these communities, Harmony being one of them, is that they are resilient and strong. In other parts of the nation, we know that strong communities like these are often destroyed. This is where context really matters. (Bell) acknowledges the importance of the law in desegregation and allowing citizens to realize their potential as citizens of the United States. Critical race theory is a comprehensive examination of the effects of race on society. It’s been fun and funny to see this conversation take place nationally. This is partly because it doesn’t focus on the true impact of systemic racism but also how it looks in the communities in which we live and work. MM: Another principle of critical race theory is the idea of “interests converge.” Could you tell us more about this and how we can better understand Mississippi’s interpretation of that idea? VG: Dr. Bell is a scholar who has written extensively about this topic. He focuses on civil rights and how they were made possible. It was part of the story, but also because it was beneficial for white America. If you are interested in the civil rights struggle of sixties, it was the time when the State Department (and diplomats) started sending back reports on how what they saw on television played around the world. We cannot project equality and dignity and respect for all human beings as the Cold War continues. Here we see our children being bitten by German shepherds. Based on Dr. Bell’s work, the passage of the Civil Rights Act as well as the Voting Rights Act was as much about what benefitted the whole as it was about the need to expand these rights to fulfill our Constitution. This is something I believe it’s important to think about. The debates around affirmative action fascinate me. One thing I heard about affirmative actions policies when I was in college, and ever since, was that white women were the greatest beneficiaries. Most data supports this conclusion. Black people are often the ones who bear the burden of affirmative actions and the stigma that surrounds them. We need to ask ourselves: Are we doing it for the right reasons? Are you doing it in the interests of justice and equity? Or do we do them because we have a self-interest? The state is gaining infrastructure dollars. We know that infrastructure has an impact on people who live there. This is something we know from history. The majority of the negative effects, especially in urban centers, are… caused by black and brown citizens in these countries. Are we at the Department of Transportation thinking about how these infrastructure dollars will be spent? Are we looking for the intersection of our interests or equity? MM: I was interviewing students at Mississippi’s only law-school class on critical race theory. They were discussing how the idea of interest convergence can almost seem Machiavellian. These social changes are not based on pure ideas of justice and equality. It is the economic realities or how this change will benefit those in power. You can interpret it in a more negative way, but it is possible to see it as a guideline for creating change in society. VG: Chauncey Spears is my friend and colleague at the Alluvial Collective. He often speaks about how we prepare young people and ourselves to become better citizens. Let go of fear, I believe, is one of the most important things we can do to really examine who we are and how our actions in the world and the institutions and systems we support. This is what we are seeing with the CRT debate. It stems from the fear of what young people learn and what it might reveal about us — or make us question who we really are. For a long time, I have worked with incredible young people. I have been in places where we discussed Emmett Till’s death, and the students of color shared their feelings of guilt, shame, and assumed blame. This is a very unhealthy way to move forward. I have had the experience of Black children, especially Black males, 14-15, questioning their own worth. One way to look at the effects of oppression on our society is through critical race theory. It’s one thing to imagine where we want to go, and another to plan how we get there. It is quite another to examine how we have degraded human potential over the generations. My friend and good friend said that white children learning about slavery can make them feel some way. Parents should be proud of their child’s reaction to it, as it is evidence of their moral compass. It’s important to remember the importance of a moral compass as a guide for budding citizens. A black child should learn that they have value. Emmett Till’s death is something that no one deserves. It should be our fears that are causing this to happen, and not the complexity of how young people are taught to look at our history. MM: What you’re saying connects to what you talked about at the beginning of our conversation about an important aspect of critical race theory being counter-storytelling. … I was wondering if you could talk about any other examples of counter-storytelling in Mississippi. VG: You know what? I can recall talking to… my middle child. She was talking about Lewis and Clark and their expedition. She was proud of all she had learned. She asked her older sister, “So tell me about other people in that story?” You know a lot about Native Americans. They are just a backdrop. This is not only disrespectful but it also makes it difficult to learn about our history. We could ask our middle school students if they knew any descendants of the original Mississippians. They would likely say no because they have died long ago. Chief Cyrus (Ben) is a steward to an amazing history and community that many of our young people do not even know exists. First of all, in our work, we never go to places we are not invited. One of the first things that we do when we reach there is to put people into circles. Because circles are the oldest form of community. At the basic level of how people live their lives, we recognize that they need a few things to happen. They must be able see each other clearly. They must be able hear one another fully. Everyone in the circle has a story to tell. It can be intimidating to show up in a space. You know that there are experts there, but you don’t feel like you have any expertise. When you do show up, all you need to do is share your authentic stories about who you are, where you came from and how they shaped you. That’s what everyone else can do. This allows you to get to know one another in a different way. MM: What kind of questions are people most likely to ask when they share their stories? VG: I hear shock the most often. You might hear people say things like, “Oh my God, that’s not true about me.” Or “I had the exact same experience.” Let’s return to Mississippi’s desegregation. It was a very traumatizing experience for everyone when the Mississippi schools were de-segregated. Critical race theory will force you to question who was able to get the jobs in the new integrated schools, and who needed to find work elsewhere. It was an extremely traumatic experience for all. Many people don’t have the chance to share those stories with others who may have been affected by the trauma. READ MORE: “Life is different here now than it was when it was when it was my childhood”: The legacy of school segregation at Yalobusha County. It might seem that if you were a Murrah white child, it was difficult on you. You went home for Christmas, and then you return and it’s all over again. Your world is upside down. It’s possible that you think the benefit went to the school for brown students. You might think that the benefit they got from the school was the only thing they thought about. Perhaps they are now looking at teachers and wondering if they have their best interests at heart. Imagine a Black family living on the margins. Now imagine the power that they felt when they sent their child to a new school. They didn’t feel like anyone in the administration was there for them. This happened throughout the state. This has been repeated to me many times, especially in Tupelo. They call it the Tupelo way. One of their proudest achievements is the way they desegregated their schools. Real-meaning people came together and said. “We’re going to ensure that our public schools become our institutions,” was what they said. There’s a lot of debate about the details and whether it’s true. You can see how these communities are doing now in Mississippi, and how they thrive. The sense of leadership that does as little damage as possible is directly related to the success of communities who have adopted a different method of educating their youth. MM: One last question. Is there something I’ve missed in the discussion and dialogue about critical race theory? VG: We need to look at the effects of oppression in society in many ways. It’s one thing to imagine where we want to go, and another to plan how we get there. It is quite another to examine how we have degraded human potential over the generations. There is no one I know that would read a book about critical race theory from beginning to finish, and not feel a conviction about society’s need to be better. Many people say that the previous generations didn’t know. Dr. Kendi makes a great point in (Stamped From the Beginning). He explains that people knew and that they have the history we have. People knew. We will have to be better. This exploration of our individuality is important, and CRT, which we absolutely must use, is just one example. Do not be intimidated or overwhelmed by the jargon. Do not be intimidated by the comments of TV talk-show hosts. You have to go there yourself. This is my story and I will continue to tell it.