Critical Race Theory
Quick Note: I first introduce the topic of critical race theory (CRT) in the Media section, where I discuss my concern over Fox News and other conservative media outlets purposefully weaponizing language to enflame their viewers. To me, these mind games not only deepen the division in this country but they also prevent us from having constructive conversations about really important issues. I know it may feel like I’m picking on conservative media but, even though both sides do this to a certain degree, right-wingers are the only ones that have turned this tactic into a true artform. It would actually be impressive if it wasn’t seriously damaging our country.
My comments in the Media section are not me defending critical race theory. In fact, my argument has nothing to do with the virtues or inadequacies of critical race theory at all. My point is that we cannot let a few rhetorical snipers at Fox News and other conservative media outlets — together with Republican lawmakers — highjack then pervert our national conversation about race, which is quite possibly the most important dialogue the current residents of this nation will ever have. The behavior of those in conservative media is all the more frustrating because we are finally getting somewhere on the topic of race, which is probably why the conservative media snipers are freaking out. Guys, if we allow a few antagonists to disrupt our progress, we will forfeit the best chance we have had in decades to develop a sensible, productive path forward.
My plea in the Media section is that we have to act fast because these damaging mind games are happening in real time. Already — as a result of these guys using CRT as a grenade in their fabricated culture war — practically every racial complexity in this country, however innocuous, has been pulled into the vortex of the CRT tornado, creating a distorted narrative that is quickly spinning out of control.
The hot button issue at the core of the critical race theory debate revolves around how racial and cultural issues are presented to students in our public schools. I’m sure you are dying to know my thoughts on this, so here is my take…
So far, at least five Republican-led state legislatures have banned the teaching of critical race theory — as defined by them — in public schools, and many others are trying hard to do the same. In Tennessee, the legislature forbids teachers from suggesting that the rule of law is “a series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.”
In Idaho, the law cites critical race theory specifically, as does the law in Texas, which also explicitly mentions the 1619 Project, a journalistic endeavor that was published in The New York Times in August 2019. According to the introduction to the initial article, the 1619 Project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
The Texas law also prohibits teaching that “slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.”
The Florida Board of Education approved an amendment put forward by Governor Ron DeSantis that forbids any teaching that aims to “suppress or distort significant historical events, such as the Holocaust, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and the contributions of women, African American and Hispanic people to our country.”
Although the state laws passed recently by conservative legislatures vary in language, most all of them have some sort of provision that resembles Tennessee’s, where teachers are prohibited from teaching anything that may cause students to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex” or anything that can lead to “division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class or class of people.”
First of all, I find this hysterically hypocritical of Republicans — aren’t they the very ones who say liberal schools are churning out a bunch of “snowflakes?” But beyond that, what does the language in the Tennessee bill even mean?
It is highly possible that the Holocaust may evoke very specific feelings of “anguish or another form of psychological distress” for Jewish students, but does that mean it shouldn’t be taught in public schools? Should slavery not be taught simply because White students may “feel discomfort” by the fact that White people once did really, really horrible things to Black people?
The Holocaust and slavery are not revisionist history. They happened. Period. And there is absolutely no way that slavery — and the extremely difficult decades that followed for Black Americans — have no effect on some of our current day challenges. Republicans can pass all of the legislation they want, but they cannot change this fact.
It’s also important to remember that, as W.E.B. DuBois’ put it, changing “history into propaganda” cuts both ways. Just like Republicans don’t want narratives like the 1619 Project taught in schools, Democrats (and other people, like me) don’t want the Trump administration’s 1776 Report — which is committed to the “restoration of American education,” whatever that means — taught in schools.
On a personal level, as Republicans fight to keep certain racial themes out of schools, I am just as concerned about the racial propaganda that is already in schools — falsehoods like the Lost Cause ridiculousness, a narrative that tries to rewrite history and say that the Civil War had nothing to do with the enslavement of Black people at all; rather it was about the moral and just goals of gaining economic prosperity, “state’s rights,” and preserving the “Southern way of life.” It’s almost impossible to believe, but the Lost Cause is still included in some textbooks in the South.
< To those who try to defend the Lost Cause nonsense, you can just save it. There is zero doubt that the main reason the South fought the Civil War was to preserve slave labor. One has to look no further than Confederate Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephen’s Cornerstone Speech, given in 1861, for confirmation of this: “Our new government is founded upon the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the White man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” >
Is the truth about why the Civil War was fought disturbing? Of course it is! It’s appalling. But it is, in fact, the truth! Just because we acknowledge that White people did something bad in the past in no way suggests that every White person alive today is racist and that every White person alive today should feel guilty about every transgression perpetrated by their ancestors. And guess what? No one is trying to “take away” Christmas either. Calm down, White people.
I’m also concerned that certain proven historical events are, for whatever reason, still being left out of public schools. I’m not talking about sweeping, maybe controversial racial narratives; I’m talking about proven historical events.
The fact that this remains a problem became clear to me when I recently watched the coverage of the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre. Imagine my surprise to learn there even was a Tulsa Massacre and something known as “Black Wall Street” since — despite having gone to three private universities and having read a ton about social justice issues — I had never heard one single thing about either of them.
Regardless of where we individually come down on critical race theory, surely we can all agree that we can’t just jump from slavery right to the Civil Rights Act, skipping over the painful but documented historical facts in between.
So, where do we go from here?
Before anything else, it is imperative that we get religious and political agendas out of our public schools. Like, yesterday. I write here about the religion side of this equation, but the political side of the equation is just as important.
Teachers are incredibly influential in children’s lives. As such, just as kids should not know what faith their public-school teacher subscribes to, they should also not know what political party their teacher is associated with or, God forbid, who they voted for. A public-school teacher has no more business hanging a Black Lives Matter banner in his/her classroom than wearing a MAGA hat while at school.
Does that mean that Black Lives Matter and MAGA — or discussions about how things like redlining affected, and still affects, the Black community, or if reparations are a good or bad idea — should never be discussed in public schools, or used as student-chosen topics for research papers or projects? Of course not.
Kids aren’t stupid. They live in the real world just like the rest of us and should be given a safe space to express themselves on their journey to becoming well-rounded, knowledgeable, and discerning citizens. After all, isn’t that what school is for?
Over the past few months, as the critical race theory debate went from being simmering hot embers to fully enflamed, I have often thought back to the day I went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (a part of the Smithsonian Institution) with seven White, Black, and Hispanic 17 and 18-year-old girls.
This museum is stunning in every way. It is aesthetically beautiful, but that pales in comparison to the power of its message. The exhibits are no frills and just present the facts in a very straightforward, non-manipulative way. Early in our visit, I noticed that, although our group had stayed together in other museums, each of us had broken off from the others and chose to absorb this museum independent of one another.
Afterward, we went to lunch and shared our thoughts about the experience. The highly intelligent and elegant way these girls analyzed and expressed what they had learned about the past and how they feel it relates to the present and future was incredible. Their analysis and insight was as impressive as it was inspiring.
Our kids don’t need us to explain the complicated and at times hypocritical nature of our Founding Fathers and other historical figures like President Abraham Lincoln; they can read the actual words of these men and evaluate their actions for themselves. Our kids don’t need our running commentary on how the horrors of slavery relate, or don’t relate, to the racial inequities that exist today; they can absorb the stories and interpret modern-day statistics with their own brains. Our kids don’t need us to supply them with, as Justice Thurgood Marshall put it, a “sensitive understanding of the Constitution’s inherent defects and its promising evolution.” They can study the Constitution and decide for themselves how they feel about those things.
It is not a teacher’s job to tell our kids what to think. The job of a teacher is to challenge students to think creatively and to use higher order thinking and critical analytical skills.
Likewise, it is not the place of the school board to tell our kids what to think. The job of the school board is to ensure that students have a curriculum that offers a combination of theoretical and practical learning opportunities to promote integrated knowledge, enhance communication skills, and encourage self-management and personal development. At the end of the day, we need to make sure our kids have the skills they need to go beyond the acquisition of knowledge to problem solving and application.
If we focus on successfully providing these tools for our kids — and present them proven historical facts in an untainted, honest and straightforward way — they will each possess the ability to deconstruct, interpret, and critique the unbiased information they are give — and be fully capable of connecting the dots all on their own.