A new strawman, but same old tactic
Critical race theory has become a convenient straw man to attack by those who would rather not examine some discomforting truths. These include that the United States, while certainly a land of opportunity, is not a land of equal opportunity. That despite the progress that has been in outlawing discrimination in business and public policy, discrimination persists. That as a nation and a people we, collectively, have a long way to go.
Critical race theory is an academic concept, now several decades old, which makes the case that policies, laws and practices have perpetuated a society in which Blacks and other people of color have fewer prospects for advancement and greater vulnerability to setbacks.
Does this mean every Black person has it tougher than every white person? Of course not. It means that a history of enslavement, institutional segregation, of discrimination, of a criminal-justice system that has not acted with equity, of social and business connections more accessible to one group of Americans than another, has created two Americas.
One statistic, compiled in the 2020 congressional report, “The Economic State of Black America,” shows this most dramatically: The median wealth of Black families is $17,000, while that of white families is $171,000.
In the wake of the murder of Black suspect George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer, while other officers yet to stand trial took part without acting to stop it, nationwide protests called for an examination of how race and racism still interweave through American life and how the nation must strive to do better.
These discussions have included policing, the justice system, economic policy, and many other facets of American society. These are difficult, but necessary discussions. There will be disagreements, and pushback. That is how a democracy works.
Most troubling, however, is the opposition confronting efforts to improve the teaching of our national history to public school students. That history has largely been presented as a series of victories over evil — the Civil War ending slavery as an institution; the Civil Rights movement ending the lawful segregation that followed for a century after; the passage of laws outlawing discrimination in voting, housing, and employment.
But if among the goals of education is to produce curious and critical-thinking adults — and it should be — education can do better. It can examine why the legacy of discrimination and its impacts did not end with these advancements. It can challenge future generations to consider policy, behavioral, and attitudinal changes that can continue to bend our nation toward “a more perfect Union.”
This prospect has freaked out many white Americans in Republican, conservative states, and their obsessive reaction has focused on critical race theory. Measures have been signed into law in at least three states in an attempt to block the teaching of ideas that can be linked to critical race theory, in other words that our past may have something to do with our present. A dozen states are considering such legislation.
The North Carolina House has moved to prohibit teachers from promoting the concept that people bear responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or that could make students feel guilty for those past actions.
What? No sensible person would suggest a child is responsible for, or should feel guilt about, the actions of ancestors. But those students could be challenged to think about how past actions echo through history and, as they emerge as adult citizens responsible for their nation’s future, how it can be made better.
The danger is the chilling effect that knee-jerk, emotion-driven laws could have on education in these states. Teachers could fear going anywhere near the controversial topic of discrimination. Rather than dealing with the topic honestly, these states could see a retrenchment to sanitized versions of that history.
Good people need to push back against this, to not let politicians provoke more racial tensions by drumming up baseless fears. It has happened every time the nation has tried to strive past its discriminatory history toward a fairer future. We again, as a people, must be better than that.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Timothy Dwyer, Executive Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser, retired executive editor Tim Cotter and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.