When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school
It’s a wonder I can think at all
—Paul Simon, “Kodachrome”
The recent discovery of Critical Race Theory (CRT) by right-wing politicians provided them a convenient wedge issue just as they found themselves bereft of any ideas to offer voters that could actually improve their lives. The recent burst of this academic theory, which had been around since the 1970s, into public consciousness cast a sudden floodlight on what was and wasn’t being taught in schools about the role of race in American history.
CRT has different meanings to different people, and over the past year these meanings have been stretched out of all recognition by the politicians seeking to ban it from being taught in schools. But to those other than its knee-jerk enemies, CRT generally is understood to hold that racism has been baked into the social structure of the United States from the early colonial days; that it permeates our society and institutions and is not merely a matter of some people disliking other people with different-color skins. Especially influential in bringing the awareness of this idea into the mainstream was the New York Times’ 2019 publication of the The 1619 Project, an in-depth look at racism’s role in American society starting with the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies that year.
The more I learned about CRT, the more I realized I could have used a little bit of it during my own school days in Virginia, the destination of those enslaved Africans in 1619. My tenure in that state’s public school system stretched from the late Jim Crow era through the conservative reaction to civil rights achievements that matured with Nixon’s “Southern Strategy.” But for much of that time I was only dimly aware of what was happening around the country as our state-approved lessons marched us through a sanitized narrative of our history.
Even as far back as the fourth grade, I was a little puzzled that our Virginia history textbook had little to say after 1865. The Commonwealth’s history had apparently ground to a halt at the end of the Civil War, a development that would have startled even Francis Fukuyama. Reconstruction was barely mentioned, and only in terms of Northern carpetbaggers preventing poor white southerners from being able to get along with postwar life. Slavery, to the extent it was discussed at all, was presented as largely a benign system, carried out by masters who cared for their chattel like children. Jim Crow? No such thing. Lynchings? Oh, you must mean Lynchburg, one of our Commonwealth’s lovely cities. Massive resistance to integration? Hush up and don’t cause trouble.
But hardly anyone was inclined to make waves. After all, we were only children, and through sixth grade our school’s population was all white. Not until junior high did I attend an integrated school. At least through elementary school, we were all steeped in a tacit racial solidarity that was reinforced by our teachers, parents and elected officials — all white, of course.
The era in which I attended school spanned some of the momentous events of the Civil Rights movement, and not a one of them was mentioned in class. Brown v. Board of Education, the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were too hot to handle. Current events were ignored as we memorized the names of the eight Virginia-born presidents (most of them slave owners) and constructed models of the fort at Jamestown. What we learned of the civil rights movement was indirect, usually snarls from parents and other out-of-school elders about “Blacks” who didn’t know their place, who only wanted to make waves and upset a perfectly good racial order. Except they generally used another word for “Blacks.”
So yes, I could have benefited from a bit of the knowledge I picked up only after graduation, and on my own. Only many years later did I learn of Emmett Till, the Tulsa Race Massacre, the Selma-to-Montgomery march, The Souls of Black Folk and Malcolm X. I look at much of the past five decades as self-correcting my own miseducation, and the more I filled in gaps in my knowledge the more I became angry at what I had been taught — and not taught. Over time I came to realize we had all been trained to take our places as cogs in the prevailing white-supremacist and capitalist order.
I am glad my son has received a more complete education than I ever did, learning the truths of America’s racial past and present, and attending a school with a diverse student body and faculty. Every child needs such an education.
The mostly red-state politicians looking to bar the teaching of CRT — however defined — in their schools have both a short-term and long-term goal. For the long term they are hoping to preserve the remains of white-supremacist thinking that has been torn down around much of the country. Here in deep-blue and majority-minority DC we forget that in much of the country — especially in the deep South but elsewhere as well — attitudes among many white people remain stuck in a racial resentment that helped fuel Donald Trump’s rise to power. These politicians want to ensure that future generations of white adults retain this resentment and future generations of color know their place. In the short term, right-wing pols are using CRT as a bogeyman to keep racist white voters in a lather so they will turn out to vote and keep them in office.
To me, Critical Race Theory is merely a fancy term for telling the whole truth about our history. We could use more truth, not less. Given the Jim Crow era’s whitewashing of history, there’s a lot to make up for.