Well-meaning scholars and intellectuals who debate Critical Race Theory (CTR in the vernacular) need to understand that their rarefied academic jargon and sweeping assumptions undermines their own cause. They provide ammunition to those politicians who exploit the racism that does indeed infect our society. Laying collective guilt on all white people allows unscrupulous politicians to pervert the CTR argument that ‘White’ American privilege oppresses blacks. They cherry pick their way through the dense narrative of the CTR discussion to accuse its advocates of hating America and attempting to impose communism. One Republican candidate campaigns in Virginia on fighting the “loser commies whining about injustices in America.” No matter how false, this sound bite resonates better than several hundred well-drafted peer-reviewed pages.
Rather than give the racists ammunition, scholars need to emphasize teaching an accurate history of America, calling out school curricula that distort history and perpetuate anti-black racism in much of the Old South. For example, let’s look at the way Texas required K-12 teachers to teach students that the Civil War was not about slavery. Texas taught kids that the state rebelled and joined the Confederacy in 1860 to protect ‘states’ rights’ and that slavery was only an excuse. In 2018 Democrats forced through a curriculum change defining slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War, but Republicans fought to keep states’ rights as a contributing cause. Even this concession perpetuates a lie; Lincoln and the Union were the one’s defending states’ rights against slave state efforts to force free states to return runaway slaves. Even today, Texas schoolbooks gloss over post-Civil War Reconstruction.
Speaking of Texas, that state also teaches that Mexican troops massacred the ‘heroic’ defenders of the Alamo fighting for Texas Independence. (I am sure you have seen the movie.) Texas schoolbooks don’t mention the fact that none of the ‘heroes’ who died at the Alamo were native born Texans. Rather they were a group of mercenaries who invaded Mexico, a country with which the United States was not at war, in order to create another slave state. Texas schoolbooks also omit the name of Ellen Ochoa from the list of early astronauts, presumably because she is the child of Mexican immigrants.
Let’s not beat up just poor Texas. Between 1889 – when serious record keeping began – and 1969 when Jim Crow finally began to crumble before the onslaught of the Civil Rights movement, about 70,000,000 kids went through the public school systems of the former slave states. During that time, an organization known as the Daughters of the Confederacy (DOC), set about ensuring that the slave state rebellion would be remembered as a justified uprising against northern tyranny, the so-called ‘Lost Cause’ of the Confederacy. The DOC did not confine itself to a massive construction program of statues and memorials glorifying the Confederacy. The DOC employed another more pernicious but effective tool; rewriting school curricula to shape young minds. They indoctrinated generations of kids to believe that the South fought to defend its rights against rapacious northerners mongrelized by the influx of immigrants from alien places like Poland, Italy, and Hungary. The curriculum painted a picture of a genteel society, with debutante balls and smiling happy House slaves passing the champagne and smiling field slaves singing happily while they picked cotton without an overseer in sight. (I recommend readers watch Gone with the Wind on Netflix.) You can also guess that Uncle Tom’s Cabin never made it on to the required reading lists of most former slave states.
In Washington, DC, where I grew up, schoolbooks of the pre-civil rights era read the same as in the Deep South. The House District Committee, dominated by gentlemen from the neighboring ex-slave states of Maryland and Virginia, ran our city government. This Lost Cause curriculum has produced a mindset that perpetuates racism directed primarily at blacks. How else to explain an educated lady of means raised in Virginia who told me that whites cannot be blamed for slavery since the white slave traders bought the slaves from African tribal leaders. Arguing that the slave traders were buying stolen goods was even less effective at changing her mind than arguing the immorality of slavery. Or the Virginia public school educator who told me that without the Southern States’ slave-based economy, we would have lost the Revolutionary War. He also argued (1) that black slaves brought to America had a better quality of life than had they stayed in Africa, and (2) that the Emancipation Proclamation was an ‘illegal taking’ by President Lincoln and that the slave owners were never properly compensated. He also repeated the lie that the descendants of slaves had no claim to reparations because their freedmen ancestors had all received and then abandoned the “40 acres and a mule” so generously granted them in Reconstruction. Finally, he closed his argument with the assertion that black quality of life as free sharecroppers was vastly inferior to the security and steady meals of slavery. This man teaches at a Virginia public high school, and you can imagine what he teaches malleable young minds. A director of a group of Florida private schools told me that he believes it wrong to make elementary school children feel bad by discussing slavery.
This is what kids still learn throughout most of the South, as well as much of the rest of the country, and the mindset it produces. Better to fight to have the facts of American history and civics taught accurately than to argue over theory.