The current uproar over the teaching of what’s called the critical race theory (CRT) in schools has become an intriguing spectacle.
The matter is coming up a lot these days, with most critics of CRT never hesitating to denounce it as, essentially, a plot to tear America apart. This is an interesting take, although it’s rather belated since this educational theory has been around since the 1970s and it hasn’t ripped us apart nearly as much as other political mechanizations. If you haven’t gotten excited about CRT until recently, there’s probably a politically calculated reason for that.
Even more interesting, at least to me, is how much emotion this issue is stirring up among some people who otherwise don’t pay a nanosecond of attention to what’s going on in the schools. I’ve seen the voter turnout, or lack of it, for school board elections here and elsewhere, and the only time many people bother to get involved in school matters is when there’s, say, a property tax opt-out on the ballot, at which point they head to the polls to put their foot down, then fade back into the woodwork and leave it up to the schools to deal with what’s left. So, seeing people getting their blood up on a non-monetary school issue is weirdly refreshing.
On the other hand, it also feels a lot like the recent angst over the school transgender athletic issue: While CRT is technically an educational matter, it’s also being used as a potent political hand grenade in our culture wars.
According to Education Week, a website for school professionals, the critical race theory is described this way: “The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” That’s a tough view, to be sure, but with the U.S. Constitution having once allowed slaves to be counted as three-fifths of a person, and given the Jim Crow laws and segregation edicts that were in place into the 1960s, for example, one could see the motivation behind the theory, although it is certainly — and should be — open to debate. And from what I’ve read, it has been debated for decades.
But it seems that CRT has also been turned into convenient shorthand for almost any discussion of racial issues in our schools.
And that’s a very different matter.
Silence cannot obscure the fact that elements of racial dysfunction have always been part of America’s story. There’s no escaping, or deleting, that past.
However, the measure of this country’s soul is not only in our perceived historical racism, but also in what we have chosen to do about it. Knowing about that is essential to understanding America’s extraordinary character. For instance, you have to understand what the Civil War of the 1860s was about — and that the “peculiar institution” of slavery was a huge part of it (of course, you can throw the states’ rights argument at me when explaining why the South seceded, but then you have to also embrace what those states wanted the “right” to do) — in order to grasp the magnitude of the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s. And curious students may want to know why it took a century for one to lead to the other, what happened in between and what has happened since. These things are not unimportant, for they will likely shape what happens next.
Such perspectives may be uncomfortable at times and they may not always cast some sacred heroes in the noblest light, but discussing these things is essential to grasping the higher spirit of who we are and what we want to be.
The same applies to American Indian issues, or Asian American issues, or other facets of our mosaic identity.
Racism is an ugly scar, but it shouldn’t be wallpapered over in order to concoct a sanitized vision of our past with the intent of teaching kids to, as our past president and our current governor put it, “love America.”
Such wallpapering (I hesitate to say “whitewashing,” for obvious reasons) is nothing new. Take it from someone who, in elementary school, was taught that the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee was a “battle” and who barely encountered any mention at all of the World War II incarceration of Japanese-Americans by America itself.
Scrubbing our history of those facts makes us neither greater nor stronger. Instead, those scars are part of a larger constructive context.
America is by no means flawless — no nation is or ever has been. However, blunt self-reflection and a willingness to understand our past in honest, thoughtful terms — as well as a determination to do something about it, when need be — is part of what’s made this diverse nation such a superlative, successful experiment.
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