Dispossession and oppression of, and genocide against, Native Americans. Slavery. Dismantling the first generation of civil rights legislation. The Chinese Exclusion Act. Internment of Japanese Americans. Jim Crow laws. Segregation. Ghettoization of minority populations. Poverty and incarceration rates.
Critical Race Theory posits that our country, government and institutions are built on laws that are rooted in racism. The fact that our country is built on slavery and dispossession would support that. But the politicians and others attacking critical race theory would not understand that, because they do not understand the theory and they don’t know American history.
Critical Race Theory does not single out individuals. It does not inspire hatred. It calls out a system that allows exclusion and discrimination to exist and continue. Many of us benefit from that system. It is necessary for us to admit that. And it is incumbent upon us to address the institutional and systemic wrongs that have occurred.
Additionally, to believe the critics would be to believe that teachers and professors expend our energies teaching nothing more than Critical Race Theory and Marxism. This is obviously untrue, but that does not fit within their narrative. My students do read Marx, but they also read Aristotle, Locke, Hume, and Machiavelli. I do teach about racism and oppression, but I also teach about freedom of religion and speech. Before we can criticize something, we need to understand what it is. Before we can embrace something, we must be aware of the alternatives. Successes and failures must be addressed just as costs and benefits. That’s what education systems are for.
Partnered with the dismissal of Critical Race Theory is the concurrent dismissal of the 1619 Project. Slavery and oppression existed prior to our birth as a country and continued well after. Our governor would have us believe that we are in need of a “patriotic” education program where American history begins in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, and presumably one that continues to whitewash American history. I would suggest such an approach to history is unpatriotic, for it presents a narrative that is simply wrong, and it ignores the reality of the American experiment. It also prevents us from achieving our ideals.
The attacks on education at all levels in South Dakota and across the country are an attempt to entrench racism, bigotry, discrimination and exclusion for another century. It means our students will not have a full understanding of our history and will lack the ability to think critically about our existence. Education and propaganda should not be confused. Those who attack Critical Race Theory, social justice and inclusion do so because they know that their opinions are not based on facts, and that their ideas would not survive the light of day. The critics are not interested in honest discussion; they wish to shut down the marketplace of ideas. The positing of theories is to encourage discussion, not end it. Critical Race Theory encourages and open and honest discussion, as do other academic theories.
Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project are more important than ever. They help us to understand our real history and can spawn the open discussions that are necessary for a great country. It is time for our governor, our legislators, and members of other governing bodies and institutions in South Dakota to get on the right side of history and issues and stay there.
Moreover, our focus cannot just be on race. American history is replete with other examples of discrimination and exclusion as well: refusal to admit Jews during the buildup to the Second World War and the Holocaust, the attacks on Muslims after Sept. 11, the rejection of Catholics for centuries. This country was built on rejection and bigotry. We cannot change that if we don’t admit it. We can ill-afford to become a reincarnation of the Know Nothings, which is what will occur if the attacks on educators continue.
Will Gov. Noem’s education program include the Tulsa Massacre? The collaboration between state and local leaders and the KKK through the 1960s? The contemporary moves to disenfranchise minority voters? Violence perpetrated by the police or other government actors? Probably not. Which ultimately means ignoring the past will be combined with ignoring the present; discrimination, exclusion, and racism will continue to permeate our system and institutions.
Tim Schorn is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of South Dakota.