The Racially Charged Bogeyman of Critical Race Theory

Conservative efforts to keep it out of public schools amount to an esoteric cultural war aimed at dividing us further. We should teach the truth — the good and the bad — about our history.

dubois1.jpg
W.E.B. Du Bois, scholar, writer, editor and civil rights pioneer. His book, The Souls of Black Folk, is considered by scholars to be the first publication on critical race theory. (Photo: Hutchins Center for African and African American Research)
America is hemorrhaging from open wounds of racial violence, a year-long fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and a fractured nation that is characterized by partisan warfare and lack of trust for and among public officials at all levels of government. In the midst of this crisis and after losing close national elections, many Republican politicians and conservative commentators have made critical race theory (CRT) the new target of attack for those who want to keep the base of the previous president fired up by creating a racially charged bogeyman they can use as a ruse.

Public officials should stick to governing and leave educating students and deciding what they need to be taught to those who know best: teachers. In many states this is not happening; in fact, the opposite is taking place. Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and Texas are among states in which conservative politicians are attacking CRT or signing into law legislation that prevents it from being taught in public schools.

There are a variety of reasons why politicians should stay clear of this and other educational issues beyond setting budgets and providing broad policy parameters. For starters, CRT is layered, complex to understand and often far beyond the expertise of most politicians who have not studied the history of race in America and don’t know the pedagogical approaches to it.

The field started out as a subtopic within legal studies in the late 1970s and early 1980s, created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado, among others. It began as a theory that sought to understand the role that race and racism played in the construction of the U.S. legal system. Later it evolved to include studies and practices within areas such as diversity, equity and inclusion and the intersection of race, class and gender. Some scholars mark its earliest beginning with the publication in 1903 of W.E.B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk.

Beyond its complexities and formative history, focusing on CRT at this time creates a huge distraction that diverts attention of public officials away from tackling what the public really needs: a return to some semblance of normalcy after a devastating pandemic. With the recent reopenings, public officials have their hands full working closely with the private sector and citizens to safely return business to pre-pandemic levels and reopen schools for in-person learning; finding solutions to escalating crime, possibly driven by residents who were psychologically affected by having to shelter in place for so long; and collecting taxes, fees and other revenue to operate their governments.

Given these huge challenges for governing and knowing how bitterly divided the country has been over the last four years, I can’t think of a worse time for officials to be chomping at the bit to engage in an esoteric cultural war on subjects as loosely related to CRT as the relevance of The New York Times1619 Project and the role systemic racism plays in various inequities.

The final reason these attacks on CRT are harmful is they deny an important aspect of our history where there ought to be little debate: the role of racism in systemic discrimination and the existence of privilege. I live in a household of teachers, and they tell me that many students today accept the reality that racism is both implicit and explicit, personal and structural. They say further that students are coming around to accepting and understanding the meaning of privilege — the unearned advantages some families pass down to their children. Instead of denying that this phenomenon exists, it might be better to focus on how to offer the advantages of a strong education and economic security to more of the nation’s families, particularly those who have experienced racial and financial discrimination.

The real problem we face today is that we have created a nation of unequals that our true history must reflect. History is not just the record of good things; it encompasses both the proud moments and those of national shame and embarrassment, the beautiful and the ugly. Educated individuals need to understand the truth about the growth of capitalism, the role that slavery played in making our economy what it is today and how these affect power relationships among Americans. They need to appreciate how society is organized politically and economically and the existence of social hierarchies. Historical facts and events shouldn’t be censored, suppressed or revised to make the people in charge today look good or deserving. American citizens need to know the true history of our country and not a Pollyanna version of it.

And in teaching and telling the truth about U.S. history we certainly need to do more, instead of less, in teaching the contributions of African Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, Latinos and Native Americans who are often left out of history books and literature. Beginning in the 1960s, due to the civil rights and other social justice movements, this was beginning to change. But the efforts underway at this time to ban CRT from being taught are a huge step backward and must be fought on all fronts by educators and others who want our students to be properly educated and competitive.

Public officials are elected to positions of leadership to serve the greater good. This means that in today's diverse and deeply fractured America they need to focus on uniting us around common principles of liberty, justice, freedom and truth. Above all, they should let educators teach the good and bad history — the critical history — to our nation’s future leaders so that they might not repeat the mistakes of the past.



Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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