“The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.”
I offer these words of Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose 2019 essay is part of the New York Times Magazine’s “1619 Project,” to the Heritage Foundation and the horde of Republican politicians currently trying to update the look and feel of American racism (a.k.a., “the lie”), to make it, you know, respectable and politically correct, so that it fits seamlessly into the mores of the 21st century.
To do so, they’ve taken aim at an academic concept dating back to the 1970s, known as “critical race theory,” which essentially makes the point that racism isn’t merely a phenomenon of individual beliefs but something, my God, built into the social structure – which is absurd, so they say, in a country that is long past its racial troubles and is now colorblind.
As the Heritage Foundation puts it, critical race theory is “an ongoing effort to reimagine the United States as a nation riven by groups, each with specific claims on victimization.”
Can you imagine?
“Democrats want to teach our children to hate each other,” Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a member of the Republican House Freedom Caucus, declared recently.
And Rep. Ralph Norman of South Carolina, speaking at the same press conference, put it bluntly:
Folks, we’re in a cultural warfare today. Critical race theory asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist, not because of their actions, words or what they actually believe in their heart – but by virtue of the color of their skin.
In other words, to talk about race and American history, especially to bring it into the present moment and suggest there is still such a thing as “white privilege,” is itself racist: a means of sowing divisions between people that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
As Education Week points out: “The topic has exploded in the public arena this spring – especially in K-12, where numerous state legislatures are debating bills seeking to ban its use in the classroom.”
Indeed, legislation “purporting to outlaw” the teaching of critical race theory has passed in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma and Tennessee. However: “The bills are so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover.”
The result of this vague legislation may simply be to discourage any deeply penetrating look at American history in the nation’s classrooms – kind of the way American history has always been taught. Keep the focus on the ideal, as per the words of Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
And keep it away from the lie: that Jefferson owned 600 slaves, and that, indeed, one-fifth of the newly formed country were slaves.
“Enslaved people,” writes Hannah-Jones, were not recognized as human beings but as property that could be mortgaged, traded, bought, sold, used as collateral, given as a gift and disposed of violently.
“Enslaved people could not legally marry. They were barred from learning to read and restricted from meeting privately in groups. They had no claim to their own children, who could be bought, sold and traded away from them on auction blocks alongside furniture and cattle or behind storefronts that advertised ‘Negroes for Sale.’”
Yeah, this is pretty awkward. How could this be taught in a public-school setting? The Republican solution is to shrug and gently set all that aside and at the same time, by focusing on a specific, newly proclaimed evil – critical race theory – rally its constituents against the true enemy (the Democrats, the “left”) and keep them eager to vote. In so doing, they are also making sure real American racism remains alive and evolving.
For instance, as NPR pointed out, during the Freedom Caucus press conference, nearly half of the speakers, even as they denied that racism was in any way part of the nation’s social structure, “invoked Martin Luther King Jr., expressing their desire to be judged ‘by the content of their character, not the color of their skin.’”
So a major component of the latest manifestation of racism is that white people are its victims. This is an interesting trajectory. We’ve moved from outright slavery, which was ended by the Civil War; to the era of Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan (whites-only drinking fountains, the lynching of black people, and so much more), which was ended by the civil rights movement; to racism’s present incarnation, which includes the prison-industrial complex, the maintenance of police departments that function as occupying armies in black neighborhoods, ongoing financial inequality, voter suppression, and the unaddressed effects of three centuries of racist cruelty and subhuman treatment, which Republicans are now attempting to hold together by means of political correctness.
All of which leads me back to the ideal and the lie. The paradox of this reality – that this was a nation founded on the best and worst of who we are – goes well beyond such questions as: How do we teach history to 10-year-olds? At the very least, it asks the question: How do we teach American history to the entire country?
Tom Hanks, for instance, in a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, expresses deep consternation over how much American history has remained invisible, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre of May 1921 – a riot of white people running amok in a prosperous black community, which resulted in 300 people killed and some 10,000 left homeless, as 40 square blocks were destroyed.
But beyond our awareness of history lies an even deeper matter, or perhaps two matters at once: How do we heal our past wounds, as they manifest in the present day; and also, how do we truly face, and transcend, our founding racism, which remains – no doubt in many unknown ways – embedded in today’s social and political structure and continues to influence who we are and what we do?
Robert C. Koehler of Chicago is an award-winning journalist and editor. He is the author of “Courage Grows Strong at the Wound.”