Race, racism, and how to teach our children about it has roiled school districts across the country. Here in Central Oregon, the Bend-LaPine School Board election school board election became a scrum over the purported threat of the infiltration of Critical Race Theory into local curriculum. The issue has been raised, albeit in muted form, in our local district in Sisters, too.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) isn’t an educational curriculum — although it can influence education — and it’s not “diversity and equity training.” As defined by the American Bar Association:
“CRT is … a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship… It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers… (I)t acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
We can all benefit from grappling with the legacy race and racism in American history, culture and society. It all depends on how it’s handled. The Sisters School District has a well-defined policy on “Teaching Controversial Issues” that serves as a pretty good template for walking through cultural minefields.
Some of its key components are:
The issue should be within the level of the student’s maturity.
That’s going to be a challenge in the current social-political climate. And not just for school kids.
The discussion should contribute significantly to developing the skills of critical thinking and problem solving.
Teaching strategies should be objective so that all sides of the issue are explored.
Again, a challenge in a climate where context is deliberately removed or obscured and serving a narrative is more important to many educators, reporters, pundits and regular folks than seeking truth.
Suitable materials, including facts and concepts of all aspects of the issue, should be available.
Presumably we’re talking about materials deeper and weightier than Facebook memes.
Keeping those principles at the forefront, it would be wonderful to see a robust engagement with ideas laid out in Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Kendi is a young scholar and a rising star in the “antiracist” movement (for which his book How To Be An Antiracist is considered a key text). Kendi’s thesis that understanding of race in America has always been in tension between segregationist, assimilationist, and antiracist thought is compelling.
Kendi argues that:
“We have been taught that ignorance and hate lead to racist ideas, lead to racist policies. If the fundamental problem is ignorance and hate, then your solutions are going to be focused on education, and love and persuasion. But of course [Stamped From The Beginning] shows that the actual foundation of racism is not ignorance and hate, but self-interest, particularly economic and political and cultural.”
Kendi’s prescription for remedying persistent racism — representative of many proponents of CRT — is radical. He has advocated for these prescriptions on social media and in interviews. Such prescriptions should be engaged and interrogated so that “all aspects of the issue” are addressed. We should take on Kendi’s assertion that:
“(I)n order to truly be antiracist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist… And in order to truly be anti-capitalist, you have to be antiracist, because they’re interrelated.”
I am not among those who look upon capitalism as sacred. It is a form of political economy that has created unfathomable material wealth — and also great inequity and environmental damage. The equation of liberty with capitalism is fraught, and has not always served us well. The mandate for constant “growth” may prove fatal. I’m all for devising “systems that suck less.” I’d be interested to see what an “anti-racist” political economy looks like. I’d hope it involves more ownership and less command; more human scale and less gigantism, either corporate or state…
Kendi believes that discrimination in favor of historically oppressed and disadvantaged groups is necessary to correct past wrongs:
“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
Well, at least Kendi is honest. He’s willing to oppress some now for the benefit of others as some sort of retroactive fix to historical wrongs. I can’t see how one can morally square this circle — but I’d sure like to sit down over a cup of coffee with the man and hash it out.
Kendi starkly urges the policing of ideas.
“To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials (with ‘racist ideas’ and ‘public official’ clearly defined). It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”
That’s an explicitly totalitarian remedy. What does history tell us about where that leads? Are there not better routes to a more just and perfect union? Hyper-focus on racial identity politics only fuels the toxic tribalism that has already corroded the foundations of the republic. Is there not a way that we can honestly and forthrightly address the persistent legacy of historical wrongs without empowering identity commissars and giving them still more and greater power over our contemporary lives?
If Americans are to have any productive discourse on race and racism, it is critical that no point of view be treated as doctrine. If we are to create a truly “safe” environment such discourse, there has to be room to challenge orthodoxies — without being tagged with a scarlet letter. That’s a tricky assignment, especially in our current overheated climate. Frankly, I’m skeptical to say the least that the radical activists in this arena want to have discourse. There’s a stark zero-sum calculation here: If you aren’t on board with the full “anti-racist” program, are you then a “racist”?
Is it any wonder that people hesitate to step out into an arena sown with Claymore mines and tripwires fixed to blast shrapnel through lives and careers? But step into the arena we must, or cede it to the most radical of activists, revanchists, and reactionaries. People of good will and good sense must clear a space in which to be heard — and to hear each other — above the din.
And our local school district has another simple principle laid out in its core beliefs that can serve as a compass bearing:
“Everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect.”