Some simple truths about critical race theory and the cynical campaign to distort it

Some simple truths about critical race theory and the cynical campaign to distort it

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[Editor’s note: As most readers are aware, groups on the American political right have launched an aggressive and coordinated campaign in recent weeks to mobilize conservative white voters by attacking “critical race theory.” Here in North Carolina, the effects of this national campaign have already been felt and seen in many places, including the concerted effort to block the granting of tenure to acclaimed journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones at UNC-Chapel Hill  and in legislation approved by the state House (House Bill 324) designed to limit unflattering discussions of race in public school history curricula.

Today, in order to help advance public understanding of this much misunderstood topic, Policy Watch is pleased to share a pair of outstanding and highly illuminating essays authored by veteran journalists for two of our sibling publications in the States Newsroom network, the Kansas Reflector and Georgia Recorder. Although both were written in response to actions taken by politicians in their respective states, readers will have no trouble discerning the relevance of both essays to discussions in North Carolina. We hope you will read and share them both widely.]

What conservative politicians need to know about critical race theory

By Mark McCormick

The late historian John Henrik Clarke explained the dominant subculture’s preoccupation with manipulating history.

Modern racism incubated when Europeans “began manipulating history in the 15th century to justify the slave trade,” Clarke, a pioneer in Pan-African studies, said in an interview with Tony Brown on Brown’s eponymous show in the 1970s.

Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt joined 19 other attorneys general in a letter challenging the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed funding priorities for grants supporting American history and civics programs. (Photo by Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

Critical race theory is a catchall for the study of American history and institutions as extensions of racial injustice that influence law, the economy and culture. Its detractors embody Clarke’s explanation, Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt among them.

What has needed hiding, essentially from the country’s founding until today? Much of what critical race theory opponents still want hidden. It’s gruesome, but it’s our history.

Most of us learned, for example, about slave traders and slave owners, but never about slave breakers, who employed ghastly means to break the spirits of enslaved Africans. Slave breakers tortured husbands to death in front of pregnant wives, hoping to not only break the spirit of the woman but intending to funnel fear into the unborn child. Slave breakers also sliced the unborn from their mother’s wombs and killed them in front of their fathers.

“You cannot enslave a man and say he is a human being,” Clarke said.

The American Slave Trade,” by John R. Spears, “From Slavery to Freedom,” by John Hope Franklin, “The Negro Family in the United States,” by E. Franklin Frazier, “Antislavery,” by Dwight Lowell Dumond and “Malcolm X on Afro-American History” all reference this process.

Could a society justifying this actually grant Black people equal rights?

It hasn’t, and attacking critical race theory offers ways to justify racial wealth and health gaps and other forms of socially engineered inequality.

Slavery begat sharecropping and convict leasing, during which people who’d been systematically denied jobs were arrested for vagrancy, imprisoned, and then worked to death.

African Americans endured segregation and a period of lynching that extended deep into the 20th century. Throngs attended lynchings. Some collected the victims’ skin and teeth as souvenirs. Others made postcards of the spectacle.

The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 wasn’t an outlier. Similar incidents happened in places like Wilmington, N.C., and Springfield, Missouri.

That period gave way to housing discrimination.

Our government offered loans to white families moving from urban housing projects to new homes in publicly funded suburbs. Black families were explicitly denied such loans and couldn’t escape to better schools or build wealth through home ownership as the emerging white middle class did.

Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” expertly detailed these practices, explaining that current housing patterns aren’t an accident, but the result of explicit government policy.

The bipartisan Kerner Commission Report in 1968 addressed these housing patterns. “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the report read. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Those housing patterns still frustrate efforts at school integration and educational equality.

Many Americans are rightfully ashamed of this history. Others who don’t know — or who don’t care to know — are the people angered by Colin Kaepernick and others pursuing critical race theory-driven discussions.

But attempts by Schmidt and others to hide this history are misguided.

How do you evade prosecution for a crime?

Silence the witnesses.

Critical race theory’s only error is its name. It isn’t a theory at all. It represents the lived Black experience. And I haven’t mentioned red-lining, environmental racism (Flint, Mich.), police terror, mass incarceration or how the government typically rammed interstate highways through Black communities.

Race remains an organizing principle in America. Any racial reckoning requires an understanding of this fundamental fact. From the Three-fifths Compromise, to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling that enslaved people had “no rights the white man was bound to respect,” to today.

Yes, we’ve revised the Constitution and no, Scott is no longer precedent. But there’s much more to do and critical race theory is a part of that healing process.

We don’t arrive at truth until suffering speaks.

Critical race theory opponents — some of whom also are whitewashing the Jan. 6 insurrection — want to keep their knees on truth’s neck, hoping to silence the horrors and suffering of the past.

The maintenance of our current status quo depends on it.

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a former newspaper columnist.


Hysteria over ‘critical race theory’ is to embrace willful blindness

By Jay Bookman

Prodded by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, the state Board of Education last week waded into the controversy over “critical race theory,” or more accurately, into a cartoon version of the theory that has been ginned up by Fox News and the conservative entertainment industry to keep its viewers in a state of racial panic.

“The United States of America is not a racist country, and … the state of Georgia is not a racist state,” the board informed us in a resolution passed in a specially called meeting. Furthermore, the board instructed Georgia educators not to teach that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” or that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race.”

These are not, ordinarily, the kind of controversial sentiments that require hastily called meetings to endorse, but the context here is important. Kemp and the Board of Education are following the example of other conservatives around the country who are rushing to pass similar laws and resolutions. They have convinced themselves that white is the new black, that schools and universities are engaged in a conspiracy to discriminate on the basis of race, and that this time the target of that discrimination is white people.

I know, I know: It’s a ridiculous claim. But if you can convince millions of people that nonexistent vote fraud cost Donald Trump the election, in contradiction to every piece of available evidence, then you can convince them of almost anything if they want to believe it hard enough.

In its resolution, the board also attempted to downplay the roles that slavery and racism have played in our nation’s history. In the board’s view, Georgia’s schoolchildren should be taught that racism and slavery were never central to American values, but were mere “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

That is simply false. Racism and slavery were indeed central to our founding, to the point that those supposed “deviations” and “betrayals” were enshrined in the Constitution, our nation’s founding document. Here in Georgia, slavery may have been banned for the first 15 years of the colony’s existence, but by 1750 that ban was lifted because white settlers complained it was impossible to make money here without Black slaves to work and die in the brutal heat and humidity.

If we are to take justified pride in those good things that our ancestors accomplished, in the nation that they built — if we erect statues to them and name schools and buildings and cities after them, if we warm ourselves a bit in their reflected glory, as the heirs to their greatness — is it not then dishonest to pretend that their mistakes do not also echo down into our own times? What wonderful magic is it that only the good they did lives on after them, and in us, while their evil somehow died with them, without leaving a trace?

There is no such magic. There is only blindness, willful blindness. Heritage and history are not a buffet line, where you can pick and choose the things you like while ignoring the distasteful.

Since 1926, a statue of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, has sat in the U.S. Capitol as one of two Georgia heroes designated by the state. In celebrating Georgia’s secession from the Union, Stephens had explained that the cornerstone of the Confederacy “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens’s statue is in Washington because of, not despite, that kind of rhetoric. How is that not institutionalized racism?

John Brown Gordon statue. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Look at Stone Mountain, a state park at the site of the rebirth of the KKK, a park that was created to celebrate the Confederacy and that is still dedicated to that cause in state law. Look at the lawns of the state Capitol, dominated by an equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. John Brown Gordon, who founded the original KKK here in Georgia.

Many older Georgia adults were taught in school that it was tariffs, not slavery, that drove creation of the Confederacy, because the admission that the cause was slavery was deemed “divisive” and might reflect poorly on the dominant white power structure. It was only 50 years ago that we desegregated our schools. It was only 20 years ago that we managed to strip the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia flag, and the man who led that fight, Gov. Roy Barnes, was then defeated for re-election in large part because of backlash against his leadership.

And it was barely a year ago that two separate Georgia prosecutor offices decided that the murder of an unarmed Black jogger by a group of armed white men in broad daylight, on a public street, was not a crime worthy of prosecution. You’ve probably seen the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s last moments – those prosecutors had seen it too, yet somehow they decided that no crime had been committed and no arrests should be made. That decision was driven by governmental, institutional racism. It is alive and thriving, in our time, and Fox News notwithstanding, white people are not its target.

Just this week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson launched into a diatribe complaining about refugees from Congo being resettled in largely white communities such as Lewiston, Maine, describing it as part of a plot by the Biden administration “to change Maine’s demographics as well as the population mix in every other state in the union” to undermine white control. If racism is mere “deviations, betrayals and failures” to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, then those deviations and betrayals continue among us, right now, in places of power and influence.

We have made enormous progress in this country against racism, and it is essential that we teach that too, both because it is true and because by telling it we create hope for still further progress. But that progress has never come easy, and at every step of the way, we have had to battle those who claim that it is not racism and bigotry that divide us, but those who dare to point out the continued existence of racism and bigotry.

It’s what was said about the abolitionists before the Civil War, about Reconstruction after the war, about those who fought lynching in the 1920s and segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The current hysteria over “critical race theory,” and the actions of Kemp and the Board of Education, are merely the latest manifestations of that long and unfortunate tradition.

Jay Bookman covered Georgia and national politics for nearly 30 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, earning numerous national, regional and state journalism awards.