As a result of the struggle to ban any and every speck of something that could be interpreted as CRT, many American states have made it virtually impossible to teach any part of Black history.
Is there still room for America’s racial history?
By Matthew Fraser, Editor in Chief
Just south of the border there is a war going on. It’s not the much anticipated and oft-discussed civil war that some members of the American population seem to call for, but a war over what and how things should be taught to kids. At the centre of this war is a previously esoteric and rarely discussed portion of American legal scholarship known as Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Much of the hubbub surrounding CRT seems to be manufactured, created by a section of the American rights media system to both satisfy and horrify their base. But it’s the offshoot of that horrifying aspect that has been the most harmful. Through this fear, Republican politicians have been able to drive their constituents to the polls and motivate their base to action.
In their essay for the Brookings Institution, Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons attempt to address some of the underlying fear that has made CRT so powerful and evil to those on the right. Early on, the two states: “Opponents fear that CRT admonishes all white people for being oppressors while classifying all Black people as hopelessly oppressed victims. These fears have spurred school boards and state legislatures from Tennessee to Idaho to ban teachings about racism in classrooms.” It goes without saying that if you thought that your children were being taught that they are unwitting or even willing instruments of white supremacy you would jump to defend them against such indoctrination. Why wouldn’t a concerned mother who swears she doesn’t have a “racist bone in her body” not want to defend against this evil that’s being taught?
Yet the problem is that CRT is not attempting to teach white children that they are hopelessly and permanently racist. In the manufactured outrage of the day, that is the catchiest way to protest the seeming loss of control that many Americans feel. In a now-viral video posted in November of 2021, an unnamed Virginia man states that CRT is the most important issue in the Governor’s election being held. What caused the virality of the video was the man’s subsequent inability to actually explain what critical race theory is or what few things he didn’t like about it. All he knew was the three words he wasn’t supposed to agree with.
However, that is not to say that critical race theory is without any deserved criticisms. Josh Hammer sprinkled some good points into his ultimately misleading article on CRT in the New York Post. At one point Hammer quotes the habitually wrong and usually unhinged Ibram X. Kendi who proposes a permanent retributive form of racism to react to and “remedy” past discrimination. In Politico Kendi argued that a Department of Anti-Racism should be made to root out racial inequity, thusly ensuring equality of outcome. Later in defending his DOAR, Kendi sarcastically remarked that his idea was fascistic, missing the point that implementing it would actually run quite close to the very authoritarian problem that most people detest.
But the constant bickering and back and forth on CRT has ultimately made it impossible for Black American history to be taught. Though I have argued previously—and I still stand behind the idea—that Black history month should be abolished, CRT and its detractors have made it so that even the most sanitized version of Black history is too radical. As a result of the struggle to ban any and every speck of something that could be interpreted as CRT, many American states have made it virtually impossible to teach any part of Black history.
Florida man and Governor Ron De Santis has championed a bill known as the “Individual Freedom” bill. CBC explains that the bill would ban any teaching “about racism in U.S. history in a way that makes them [white people] feel ‘discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.’” However, the consequence of this bill is that it makes it impossible to teach students about the violence Martin Luther King endured as he tried to lead America towards racial equality. How would one teach about the Jim Crow south without risking discomfort? What are students supposed to feel but anguish when they read To Kill a Mockingbird?
In an interview with ABC News, a 60-year-old Texas school teacher named Diane Birdwell acknowledged the wrongs her family committed in the past by saying: “I don’t shy away from it because I accept the fact that it’s part of my family’s past.” In Birdwell’s case, these historic wrongs include both a Confederate fighter and a Nazi; and she works her lineage and its accompanying baggage into her lessons at school. Yet these historic truths will soon be considered unteachable due to an incoming law in the Lone Star state that “would remove a mandate for educators to teach historic moments of slavery, as well as the Chicano movements, women’s suffrage and civil rights” amongst other things.
And all of this to what end? To “own the liberals?” Generally speaking, the goal is supposed to be to “protect the children.” As Kevin L. Clark points out in Essence, the books the group “Moms for Liberty” were trying to ban were supposedly unbelievably harmful to children, ultimately culminating in “resentment, shame of one’s skin [colour], and/or fear.” Additionally, the books would cause kids to “hate their country, each other and/or themselves.”
So what were the books in need of banning? Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington and Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story amongst others. This is a situation where the obsessive and overblown fear of CRT will actually make the teaching about Black American history impossible if not a litigation-worthy offence. As I had said earlier, these moves run speedily in the direction of removing the violence that history is filled with just to prove a point. One part of the lawsuit cites “photographs of white firemen blasting Black children to the point of ‘bruising their bodies and ripping off their clothes” as a reason to ban the books, essentially admitting historic atrocity needs concealing for the protection of children.
But this brings me to my greatest fear about these efforts to suppress, conceal or otherwise obscure these historical realities. What if there is a section of the American right that does not automatically identify with the white people who fought against racism? It should be common knowledge that in all eras where there were racists, there were those who opposed racism. Though history may have papered over them, there were undoubtedly people even in the South who opposed slavery. There were certainly those who throughout the civil rights era who knew instinctively or grew to realize that the racial injustices that were being perpetrated were wrong. Yet somehow, the white population that fears CRT has not been able to see themselves as part of the group of morally upright Americans; and frustratingly, I can’t fathom why.
The Great American project—at least as I see it—is a long struggle against evil and towards universal liberty. Why is it then that the whites of today fail to valourize the freedom fighters of the past as part of their push against misleading children? Has this section of white America become so obsessed with the grievance narrative of the “Lost Cause” that they cannot fathom a way to claim John Brown as their own? Were the lessons of the United Daughters of the Confederacy so powerful that people cannot step away from their confederate flags and tell their children that had they been alive they would have marched alongside Martin Luther King? Why do they not see themselves as part of the good side of that history?
As a distanced and largely unaffected observer of this war, I can’t imagine what it is that the opponents of CRT think they are gaining. I cannot imagine that history will be kind to them as time trots forwards. I can only expect that when future generations look back at those who fought with such vigour to prevent the history and context of the civil rights era from being shared, they will be saddened. If not, then maybe whatever these combatants desired has been won already.