How long does it take to beat swords into plowshares? A generation? Two generations? How about seemingly never? Sadly, that’s where we are with the Civil War. We’re still fighting battles over racial equality, whether in the streets of Minneapolis beneath banners about George Floyd or on this opinion page.
America’s legacy of slavery was the result of systemic racism, pure and simple, powered by the theory of racial superiority. This statement summarizes the framework of what’s called critical race theory, and despite an ongoing pattern of denial, racism still courses through the veins of far too many institutions, from law enforcement to the justice system to the composition of corporate America’s boardrooms.
Critical race theory emerged in the 1970s when legal scholars realized the limitations of the civil rights movement and resultant laws like the 14th and 15th Amendments, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They believed that no matter how many court victories piled up, racial injustice was still pervasive in America; it dwelled in too many hearts. Critical race theory received a strong second wind from the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 and George Floyd’s 2020 murder.
Sports provide no exception for racism. During a recent lacrosse game at Manchester Valley High School, one of the school’s African American players alleged that racial slurs were hurled at him, claiming, “Yeah, it happens all the time. I’m honestly used to it.” Such behavior is even found in the NBA. Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving has complained about the “underlying racism” of fans who have hurled epithets and water bottles at him.
Such anecdotal examples reveal the universal, uncomfortable truth that racism is the rot that continues to eat away at all aspects of our society. The damage will continue unless students are properly taught about the origins and long-term aftereffects of slavery.
But some fear such discussions and delight in sowing red herring facts to deflect and distract. How many times must we hear, “Slavery is as old as humankind” and “Even the American Indians had slaves?” They often throw in, “And we elected Obama twice, didn’t we?” The three assertions are certainly true but irrelevant to addressing what’s proven uniquely toxic and frustrating to countless lives of people of color now, at this very moment, not back then.
The antipathy to teaching critical race theory is strikingly illustrated by the 16 Republican-controlled states — most, though not all, former members of the Confederacy — that are considering or have signed into law legislation limiting and defining what teachers can say about slavery and racism. Lawrence Paska, executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, fears these laws create “a very chilling atmosphere of distrust, educators not being able to be the professionals they are not only hired to be but are trained to be.” The laws also have serious ramifications for a teacher’s first amendment rights and smack of the state-driven curricula in Communist China and Cuba.
It hasn’t helped that some proponents of critical race theory have given it a Marxist spin, substituting race for class, calling for wealth redistribution, and using it to attack our capitalist system. Every movement has its extremists, but we must not allow their intemperate interpretations to fuel the whitewashing of history.
For too many years events like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921 have been papered over by white historians. You could find references to Custer’s Last Stand in history textbooks, but not Tulsa. The Lakota killed 210 U.S. Cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn, but a white mob killed hundreds of unsuspecting Blacks in Tulsa and destroyed more than 35 square blocks of their businesses and homes. Who remembers being taught that? I certainly don’t. Furthermore, Custer’s troops were conducting a campaign of genocide when they were outsmarted by Sitting Bull, though the ugly “G” word won’t be found in most accounts.
The same forces allied against critical race theory also object to diversity training, social justice initiatives, the concept of inclusion, and even equity. They charge that the Declaration of Independence proclaims equality and not equity and that life doesn’t always have to be fair. Behind this smokescreen lies discrimination in housing and hiring.
Many universities and colleges and even the Central Intelligence Agency have as their motto, “The truth will set you free,” a variant of verse 8:32 of the Gospel of John. It is high time our Republican friends embrace this noble belief.
Frank Batavick writes from Westminster. His column appears every other Friday. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.