April 22, 2024

Critical Race Theory; what it is, what it isn’t

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Editorial Board

Last month, most Americans learned about — for the first time — one of the nation’s most abhorrent crimes: The 1921 slaughter and destruction of a vibrant “Black Wall Street” community in Tulsa’s Greenwood section. 

History teachers across the country were like most of us, shocked that white racists in Tulsa would and could commit such an atrocity a century ago. White mobs killed hundreds of innocent people only because they were black. Thousands were arrested by the National Guard. White marauders completely destroyed a large and prosperous, segregated community and its businesses.

More startling, however, is that the town, the state, and the nation first hid the atrocity and then covered it up.

Only this year, at the century mark, were details widely revealed to not just the nation, but even to residents of Tulsa, many of whom knew nothing or little of the 1921 massacre, once referred to as a “race riot.”

It’s just one incident among endless others that historians continue to uncover or better explore, helping the nation understand what happened and how we got here.

Much of American history is marred by events once painted as heroic, but when better understood illustrate traits in other governments and nations we now spurn. Modern Americans now understand that Native Americans were driven onto “Indian reservations” for the benefit of ruling white immigrants, not conquered native Americans.

Revealing our nation’s history as realistically and fully as possible helps us understand how to fix problems that beset not just our nation, but all others.

Discoveries like the century-old Tulsa Massacre, however, make the new uber-controversy over critical race theory even more bizarre.

While critical race theory has been resurrected as a new fearsome buzzword for conservative extremists, it appears few understand what this decades old sidebar in academia is, and what it’s not.

More than anything, it’s not a public school curriculum, and it isn’t “taught” in local or really any public schools. That’s because critical race theory is a 1970s academic concept about how societies might be shaped and formed.

A growing number of conservative extremists, many of them elected GOP officials, are working hard to make people believe critical race theory is akin to an anti-white education virus that skulking educators and activists are using to infect the minds of the masses. They work to conflate this academic framework with the real need to examine American historical evidence instead of perpetuating endless false and unquestioned narratives. 

Re-examining the hero-worship of dubious leaders of the U.S. confederacy is an example of how acceptable historical narratives become unacceptable when seen from the view of victims.

As the name makes clear, CRT is an academic theory. Much of it focuses on an idea that the very notion of racial differences is a cultural construct, not a biological one. It looks to those societal constructs, some that have been around for millennia, as the foundation of racism and discrimination, more so than the result of people thinking less of each other because of their race.

In the case of the Tulsa massacre, CRT might seek to shine a light on how Tulsa’s government and community enabled rioters to not just carry out the massive crime, but then hide it. White murderers, thugs and looters were never held accountable for their crimes. 

Those now mongering fear among white conservatives forget that teachers, especially history and civics teachers, are predominately nurturers of student curiosity and exploration. Good school systems empower these teachers to draw students out of themselves and away from rote learning, and they need time and tools to do that. Memorizing dates of abbreviated events is not what modern history education, nor any education, is about.

No one in public schools stands in front of a class of teenagers and tells them white people should be ashamed that their ancestors abused native Americans and generations of people of color for hundreds of years all across the continent.

But hiding the facts and details of eons of atrocities carried out at the hands of white people skews history and reality, and it robs students of an opportunity for new insights that past generations of Americans were denied.

Knowledge and learning from context and reality are nothing to fear. Judging past racism and bigotry isn’t nearly as important as understanding it.

Most of the state’s schools and classrooms are led by apt and dedicated teachers who guide students through the facts of American history to reach their own philosophical conclusions. That’s what public education is all about.  It’s why so many people who go through the exact same school system end up with such different philosophies on endless matters.

There is plenty of controversy in public schools right now. Vast numbers of students have been set dangerously behind by the pandemic. Educators are increasingly expected to provide vast swaths of critical social infrastructure for students.

What’s not controversial, however, is whether critical race theory is being used to indoctrinate students into widening the racial schism among all of us. It’s a dangerous ruse and needs to be soundly outed now so historians won’t have to do it later.

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