There’s nothing new about official edicts requiring educators to whitewash their country’s history with a nationalist slant. But until now, these sorts of measures were usually a hallmark of authoritarian societies such as China, North Korea and the former Soviet Union, and not the sort of thing that would gain traction among free-thinking Americans.
But that was before the recent backlash against an obscure academic concept called critical race theory, 2021’s latest hot-button issue among those seeking a distraction from the crisis facing American democracy. Like the Dr. Seuss and transgender athlete uproars before it, the brouhaha over critical race theory was seemingly conjured out of thin air this year by the public relations professionals at the Republican National Committee.
Several Republican-led states such as Florida, Arkansas, Idaho and Oklahoma have banned critical race theory from classrooms in 2021, while state legislatures in Tennessee, Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky are among those considering following suit. It’s no coincidence that after Donald Trump’s lie-fueled temper tantrum over his election defeat, many of these states sought restrictions on voting that disproportionately affect Black voters. Nor is it a coincidence that many of them were also part of the Confederacy, which was formed for the purpose of defending slavery and expanding it to new states in the west.
The debate over critical race theory came right on cue last week at a meeting of the Cooperstown Board of Education. If you hadn’t heard of the concept before hearing it described by Pete Russo at the meeting, we can understand why you’d be scared.
Russo warned that critical race theory was “designed to destroy our republic and our community,” that “re-segregates our kids, it re-segregates our community, it re-segregates our nation.” He likened the theory to the teachings of mass-murdering autocrats Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong — a comment that elicited well-deserved laughter from the audience. Fellow Cooperstown resident Dylan Arnot had a more measured stance, arguing critical race theory merely teaches “that race is not a natural biological feature, but rather a socially constructed category that has been historically used to oppress certain groups of people.”
We don’t mean to burst anyone’s patriotic bubble just before the Fourth of July, but the truth is that much like a typical American family, American history isn’t perfect. Our nation was founded at a time when its leading minds considered slavery morally acceptable, while the age of sail made trans-Atlantic human trafficking technologically feasible. African slaves were brought in vast numbers to serve as an underclass to white masters in the South, setting the conditions for Abraham Lincoln’s “house divided against itself.” They’ve been fighting for a fair deal ever since, and schoolchildren should be made aware of their struggles against, for example, Jim Crow laws, redlining, sundown towns and racist city planning by the likes of Robert Moses.
Consider that some have advocated for direct reparations payments today to the descendants of African slaves. Local scholar Harry Bradshaw Matthews, the director of the Office of Intercultural Affairs at Hartwick College and himself a descendant of an enslaved American, noted in a recent commentary piece for The Daily Star that such measures would be fraught with logistical problems and wouldn’t necessarily entail justice for black Americans. Critical race theory instead attempts to solve the problem of U.S. racial inequality with finesse, by building understanding and empathy for our fellow Americans of different colors.
The goal of a colorblind society is laudable, but it won’t be reached by a hard-headed insistence that race can never be discussed or even considered under any circumstances. It can only come through an honest appraisal and understanding of U.S. history — warts and all.