What is critical race theory, why are some people scared of it?

A Liberal Dose

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Tennessee is one of several red states whose legislatures have passed laws banning critical race theory - something most Americans had never heard of until Trump condemned it in the final days of his presidency, calling it “unpatriotic.” Trump also attacked the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” which began in 2019. That ongoing series of articles about the legacy of slavery gets its name from the fact that the first African slaves arrived in the English colonies (specifically, Virginia) in the year 1619, which seems like a pretty reasonable date with which to begin a series of articles about slavery in America. Following Trump’s lead, a lot of conservatives are conflating the New York Times’ series, the academic thematic approach of critical race theory, and anything else that takes a frank and honest look at the history of slavery in this country, instead of glossing over it like it never happened and banning it from public school history classes. I’ve read a lot of quotes from conservative politicians and pundits about “CRT,” but I have yet to read anything said or written by anyone who actually knows anything about it. In fact, editorials about it tend to begin with words like “I’m not an expert, and I don’t actually know what this is, but it’s bad.”  Why is it bad? Because, they say, it is unpatriotic; it denies the rule of law and says that all of American history has been different racial groups vying for power; because it claims 1619 is the founding of America instead of 1776. Spoiler alert - none of those accurately describe critical race theory.

I do have some background that qualifies me to discuss the topic, I think. I have a Ph.D in history, specifically race and ethnicity and the American South. I will start out by saying that, like a lot of stuff from the previous administration, this is a lot of hot air about nothing. K-12 public schools are not teaching critical race theory; critical race theory is an offshoot of academic legal studies and is also now used as a theoretical approach in political science, education, anthropology, and some other fields. It is not really used by many academic historians, actually – academic historians who specialize in race tend to use whiteness theory, which is very similar but different in that it looks at culture rather than law. And in that it equally freaks out conservatives who are familiar with it. The 1619 Project uses elements of both.

Critical race theory holds that the American colonies, and later the United States, used the legal system to make racism official in order to support slavery. Because it was such an intrinsic part of the law, it got baked into the system and elements of it are still there, resulting in systemic racism. Let me pause to give you a dose of actual (not imaginary) history: the English colonies, and all 13 states at the beginning of the Revolution, had laws that legalized slavery and other laws that limited the civil rights even of free black people. Slavery ended with the Civil War, but existed in everything except name in the South during Reconstruction (see “black codes”). That was followed by Jim Crow segregation laws, which existed until the mid-1960s. Before that, black men were lynched or executed on the flimsiest, if any, evidence. Today, factual studies prove that black men are more likely to be imprisoned, and for longer sentences, than white men convicted of the same types of crimes. These are facts. Historical facts.

Whiteness theory is based on the works of W.E.B. DuBois and others, including James Baldwin. This approach says that English colonists in the Americas established a new identity for themselves, apart from being British. This “American” identity was also, de facto, a “white” identity. The idea of being “white” was relatively new – it started in the early 1600s, started becoming a common idea in the late 1600s, and was used universally in the English colonies by 1700. In other words, after they started using African slaves, colonists started pointing out that they themselves were not black. The black slaves were an “other” against which to define themselves, as were the American Indians. I’ve barely seen the 1619 Project touch on Indians, by the way, which is why I’m not a huge fan of it - it’s a good place to start, but it is mostly written by journalists instead of historians and lacks the necessary nuance, depth, and context.

I invite you to go to SpartaLive.com or my blog (tnwordsmith.blogspot.com) and take a second look at my Feb. 25 column (“History Is the Key to Everything”) and the one from the following week, March 4 (“Understanding the Many Types of Privilege”). Both of them contain elements of both critical race theory and whiteness theory. Did they seem unpatriotic to you? Did I seem to be trying to stoke up hatred between races? Or was I trying to foster more cooperation? That’s a big part of the problem with this (mostly meaningless) legislation - rather than narrowly defining things, proponents of it have quoted the most revolutionary statements they could find and conflated every way of talking about race or slavery that goes beyond what a 1930s textbook would say, or that is frank and honest instead of euphemistic and “positive,” into a lump of unpatriotic, racially divisive vitriol when that’s not what it is. The result is going to be that teachers will be afraid to have real discussions about race in America, and students will not be allowed to even think about it. And nothing will ever change for the better.

I’ve written before, in those first couple of columns, that when you have a gaping wound, it’s not going to get better if you just pretend it’s not there. It will keep getting worse. Now I’m going to use a different analogy.

Let’s say you have a cake pan. It’s not just any old cake pan, it’s in a special, complex shape that produces cakes people marvel at. But it also has a big dent in it. No matter how fancy or impressive the overall cakes are, every single cake that comes from that pan is going to have that big dent. Now let’s say you and your family get together and say “you know, I am sick to death of cakes with dents in them. So from now on, we are not going to look at the dents and will pretend they are not there. THAT’LL fix the problem.” Except it won’t. The only way to fix that problem is to carefully pound that dent out. To change the structure.

The structure of this country is, in my opinion, very impressive. The idea of what this country should be is as beautiful and sacred to me as it ever was. But it has never been perfect. Our job is to slowly pound away at the dents in it “in order to form a more perfect union.” Pretending the problems aren’t there will never solve them.

Finally - how about you let the trained teachers decide what to teach and how to teach it instead of making it political?

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.    

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