Critical Race Theory?

[This blog post is the opinion of Greg Nooney and not necessarily the view of the First Unitarian Church of Sioux City.]

In his 11-13-2021 editorial in the Sioux City Journal, Marc Thiessen proposes that critical race theory (CRT) is dangerous and is being used to indoctrinate America’s children. Thiessen argues that CRT has its roots in 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s work, and, as so, rejects reason. It has been almost 50 years since I studied Kant, but a cursory understanding of his work is sufficient to realize that such an interpretation is patently false, since Kant systematically argues the importance of reason in public discourse. In his essay “What is Enlightenment?” Kant stated “the public use of one’s reason must be free at all times, and this alone can bring enlightenment to mankind.” CRT is based on postmodern thought, is much too complicated and nuanced to be taught to elementary or high school students, and Thiessen offers no evidence that CRT is actually being taught to our children.

What is important is the way in which CRT is being used as a catchphrase to disguise the conservative view that racism shouldn’t be acknowledged or taught in our schools. In his November 20, 2021 editorial, Leonard Pitts pointed out that when conservatives ask how young is too young to teach children about race, what they are really asking is how young is too young to teach white children about race, because Black and Brown children already know about racism from their experience of it. When I attended school in Sioux City in the 1950s and 1960s, I was taught that there were some bad slave owners, but there were bad people of all races and most slaves were happy with their lot. I was not taught that young white men were recruited into militias to patrol plantations to prevent the slaves from running away. I was not taught that there were hundreds of violently crushed slave uprisings. I was not taught that white slave owners could impregnate their female slaves and snatch the babies from their arms and sell them to the highest bidder. I was not taught that an estimated two or three Blacks were lynched each week in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and that lynchings were celebratory family events for white families.

When my father returned from his service in World War II, he utilized the GI Bill to attend Morningside College and to get a low interest loan on a house, which made it possible for my family to join the middle class. I was not taught that Black soldiers were routinely denied GI benefits. If they did try to purchase a house, they were redlined and not allowed to purchase houses in the neighborhood I grew up in.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968, 75% of white Americans disapproved of him and almost a third of Americans thought he brought it on himself. Today conservatives are praising him while misrepresenting his teachings. By arguing that Dr. King did not see America as systemically racist, Theisen is embracing what Ibram X. Kendi (the Atlantic, 10/14/2021) calls “the second assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

Dr. King’s writings and teachings speak for themselves. As Kendi reports, King wrote this in 1967: “Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn.” He also told a NBS correspondent on May 8, 1967 that the “dream I had [in 1963] has at many points turned into a nightmare.” In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here? He wrote: “It is, however, important to understand that giving a man his due may often mean giving him special treatment.”

The conservative CRT narrative is having a negative effect on teachers who worry they may suffer consequences if they talk about racism in their classes. In Virginia’s gubernatorial race, The Democratic candidate was criticized for saying that parents should not be telling schools what they should teach, and the winning candidate Glenn Youngkin proposed that parents should be in charge of their children’s education. If we accept Younkin’s position, what happens if parents decide that schools should teach, as I was taught, that slaves sang songs while picking cotton, and were generally content with their lot? It would appear that Youngkin and Thiessen would like to take us back to the 1950’s. I hope we have moved a little past that today.

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  • Greg Nooney