Critical Race Theory Debate Is About Whitewashing the United States’ Racist History

·6 min read

We just lived through four gruesome years of a president who spewed words of hate, often rooted in racism, on a regular basis and a global stage. Many of those words also happened to be lies, yet the Republican party backed him every step of the way — citing the First Amendment, claiming that hate speech and dangerous lies should be fiercely protected under the guise of free speech.

Now this same Republican Party has made it its mission to ban our country’s educators from teaching students the actual truth about our history. This isn’t surprising, given Republican lawmakers’ long history of promoting a whitewashed, misleading version of U.S. history in the country’s schools. Trump himself created the 1776 Commission, a “patriotic education” organization that was meant to teach American exceptionalism to students and counter supposed “left-wing indoctrination in our schools.” He also signed an executive order that suspended federal training programs related to race, diversity, and inclusion in the months before the American people told him, “You’re fired.” 

The Republicans’ current crusade against teaching race and racism in schools is part of the same tradition of erasing truth and amplifying fiction. Perhaps more importantly, it mirrors the type of dangerous, disturbing behavior of those history-makers that the modern GOP fears discussing. If today we talk about the racists and white supremacists of yesterday, then years from now, we’ll be talking about the racists and white supremacists of today, many of whom are the very same leaders trying to rewrite history.

This year alone, 21 states have either banned critical race theory (CRT) or introduced legislation that moves in that direction. CRT is described as being a framework that considers race to be a social, institutional construct that’s intended to keep Black and brown people in the lower rungs of society — i.e., an accurate description of the past few centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and myriad other forms of discrimination.

One of the main targets of Republicans’ ire is journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, published by The New York Times in 2019. The project commemorated the 400th anniversary of the first enslaved Africans arriving in what is now the U.S. Her work went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2020, and its content has since been used to teach about slavery and its impacts in classrooms nationwide. But some schools have attempted to ban its teaching, and in May of this year, it was reported that Hannah-Jones’s application for tenure at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill was denied after conservative criticism of her work. With that, the Pulitzer Prize-winner became UNC’s first Knight Chair professor to be denied tenure by the board of trustees. 

According to the Associated Press, one of the school’s major donors confirmed that he’d reached out to university administrators to voice his concerns over her hiring, referring to her work as “highly contentious and highly controversial." But Hannah-Jones’s work isn’t the problem; the problem is the fact that, to many Republicans, discussing slavery and systemic racism seems to be more “highly contentious and highly controversial” than the acts themselves. The GOP is yet again leaning into the culture wars, this time using decades-old material.

Critical race theory is an academic framework, which according to NPR, “examines how race and racism function in American institutions.” Although it was developed by a group of legal scholars and activists in the 1970s to make sense of the role systemic racism continued to play in the lives of Black Americans, the concept is also directly related to the teachings of W.E.B. Du Bois, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Pauli Murray. Civil rights attorney Derrick Bell — Harvard University’s first Black tenured professor, often referred to as the “father of critical race theory” — is credited with establishing the theory along with Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Patricia Williams, Mari Matsuda, and Kimberlé Crenshaw. "Critical race theory is a practice. It's an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what's in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it," said Crenshaw.

Those who oppose the concept say teaching CRT “teaches kids to hate America.” Representative Steve Toth (R-TX) went so far as to invoke Martin Luther King Jr. in defending the bill he authored seeking to ban CRT: “This bill is a direct reflection of the 1964 Civil Rights Act,” Toth told Yahoo News. “It echoes Dr. King’s wish that we should judge people on the content of their character, not their skin.” The thing is, CRT isn’t designed to say that all white people are racist; it’s a theory that seeks to interrogate the laws, regulations, court rulings, and other decisions powerful authorities made that led us to where we are. It’s looking at the institutions that held them up, and the figures that set them down. Judging these history makers by the content of their character, it would be difficult not to conclude that some of them are racist.

The proof is there, and in many cases, it’s in black and white. There’s the explicitly racist language in the Federal Housing Authority’s Underwriting Manual that laid the groundwork for redlining; the government-funded Kerner Commission’s documented findings on the racial uprisings from 1965 to 1968; and the reality that Black Americans were considered to be three-fifths of a person. There’s also the obvious impacts that the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans has had on their descendants.

The fear of teaching American students how to think critically about race is alarming. If merely thinking about the construct of race is so dangerous, the practice of enforcing political and systemic divisions based on that same construct is even more dangerous. Consider what these whitewashed, often false, historical narratives have done to the psyches of nonwhite students. Some textbooks refer to enslaved people as “immigrants” or “workers,” many of whom were not “unhappy” with their place within the “peculiar institution” of slavery. Others teach students that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America, totally disregarding the millions of Indigenous people who inhabited this land before him (a concept that truly baffled me as an elementary school student). Where’s the outrage about the ways those false teachings hurt nonwhite kids? Nonetheless, here we are. All of us — Black, white, Asian, Indigenous — descendants and inhabitants of a country whose history is deeply rooted in the practice of enforcing this construct of race. 

The U.S. that we live in today, with all its flaws and beauty, wouldn’t be what it is without race. James Baldwin, writer and activist, once said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” After all, how much can you truly love your country if in the telling of its story, you insist on leaving out the parts that truly define it? To love a fictional iteration of your country is no patriotism at all.

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