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Critical race theory — why?

Am I missing something? I attended Denver Public Schools, K-12, 1951-1964. We learned about the Civil War. We lived in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Never once did I hear a teacher or student diminish the evils of slavery. Never once did I hear Jim Crow denied or justified. Nor, I might add, did I once hear any student say he felt demeaned or diminished learning all of these facts. My fellow students were white.

Am I supposed to believe that subsequent to 1964 American history was taught differently? That the Civil War was downplayed or its causes diminished? That the Civil Rights movement was pointless or wrong? I highly doubt it. If anything, the rights set in motion by the Civil Rights movement gained traction, so much so that they came to be taken for granted. More important than the legal rights were the cultural ones that testified to the increasing irrelevance of race to most Americans. When I grew up, there were few if any black politicians, lawyers, teachers, doctors, etc., and few interracial marriages. That has all changed.

If so, what is the point of critical race theory?

There is no point if all it does is identify the evils in America’s past. They are long acknowledged.

As for the continuing racially based difficulties in America, they too are brought to light without any fundamental alteration in school curricula. They are brought to light by news media and by events.

The opposition to critical race theory is that it goes beyond teaching history. This is a generalization. CRT is defined differently across the 26 or so states that seek to ban it, and I have not reviewed 26 bills. The underlying objection seems to be the classification of the individual by race or by another group identity, and the ascription of the sins of a past group to the present, individual members of that group.

That would be factually astigmatic and morally wrong. It would rob the individual of agency. It would create a social fabric forever divided, whether equally or unequally. Social cohesion is not built on permanent group stigmata.

Sir Isaiah Berlin distinguished between “freedom to” and “freedom from.” Freedom from assures democracy. No one can force anyone else to do or be something he or she doesn’t want. Freedom to implies a coercive power. Berlin was talking about governmental and specifically totalitarian power. But it applies socially, too. If critical race theory would have society institutionalize pressures on me to define myself primarily as white or black or by another favored category, I would lose my freedom. I would no longer be an individual with agency.

This is reason enough to oppose CRT. Its common denominator seems to be the imposition of group identity.

I don’t think it is wise for state legislatures, with their partisan divides and lack of educational expertise, to micromanage school curricula. But it is naive to see this as fundamentally different from school boards, which come at every issue from a partisan viewpoint of one kind or another.

If CRT is banned, would that necessitate a rose-colored view of American history? Would slavery or Jim Crow, for example, be whitewashed?

More broadly, would a ban on CRT necessitate a ban on study of other groups’ sins of the past, such as the perpetrators of the Holocaust or of the Holodomor in Ukraine? Would a CRT ban necessitate revisionist, inaccurate history?

It all comes down to the distinction between is and was. CRT is about the present, not the past. CRT is about redefining the way individuals see each other now — as determined by their race.

CRT, that is, teaching that individuals of the present are responsible for sins of the past, is not really about the past, about was. So if a school curriculum banned CRT, this would not say anything one way or another about the past. For example, if a given curriculum wished to say that redlining against blacks in American neighborhoods did not happen, or was not widespread, CRT would not correct this.

Any curriculum is subject to distortion and abuse. But a new, ineluctably racial way for individuals to look at themselves cannot alleviate curricular deficiencies, and cannot change the past. The prevalence of the Nazis’ non-German collaborators, of communist perpetrators of the Holodomor, of Catholic enforcers of the Inquisition, of anti-Semitic hoards throughout the ages is not the true target of CRT.

It is an agenda item for the present. As best as I can tell, the agenda of advocates of CRT is to justify funding to fix current social disparities based on permanent racial preferences.

CRT does not so much want to alter historical memory as to preach a new social vision of the present. History is not really the focus of CRT. CRT is not was, it is is.

Say that the curricula for American history were to change. Say that ugly facts were to be denied or downplayed. Say that a rose-colored view of American history were to emerge. What would be the solution? The restoration of the facts, not the imposition of the group think promoted by CRT.

Should CRT be banned? I don’t like the idea of banning ideas. Once one idea is banned, it is easier to ban any idea. At the same time, I have to acknowledge that the push behind a ban is a coercive, bad idea to begin with: CRT.

Another, related issue: complexity. The founders of the US who asserted that “all men are created equal” also held slaves. This leaves many with a simplistic view of the founders. The issue extends far beyond “nobody’s perfect.” The issue is the contradictions that invade almost everyone’s life.

The idea that men could conceive of a new form of political liberty that elevated the course of world history and also engage in actions contrary to their vision leaves many baffled. I’m not baffled. Otherwise, I would be blind to the contradictions in my own life, and in the lives of most everyone I know. Contradiction is no basis on which to write off the grand American vision of the founders.

The contradictions of the founders are not explained by CRT. They are reoriented by a realistic view of human nature.

The grand American vision is unrealized. It has never been, but it has been dramatically advanced. Our job is to advance it further, not to deny its value or uniqueness. That is counterfactual and counter-complexity.

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