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Column: Republicans are passing laws to suppress the truth about slavery’s enduring legacy

An art piece depicting chained people is displayed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala.
An art piece depicting chained people is displayed at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Ala. The national memorial aims to teach about America’s past in hopes of promoting understanding and healing.
(Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

What is so terrifying to Republicans about the reassessment of American history known as critical race theory? Once an obscure academic theory, it has now taken its place alongside face masks and cancel culture as the bugaboo of conservatives who would rather do anything other than fix our broken immigration system, crumbling infrastructure and inadequate healthcare.

Pioneered in the 1970s and ’80s, and refined as the decades have passed, the theory posits that racial inequality is a baked-in feature of American institutions, which benefits what author Isabelle Wilkerson calls “the dominant caste,” i.e. white people.

Republicans, most of them white, are outraged at the suggestion.

“There’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory,” said Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who like many in his party, is vying to become the successor to Donald Trump. “Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”

And the critics are not just talking. Last week, 20 Republican state attorneys general (representing seven of the 11 Confederate states), wrote a 10-page letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona objecting to proposed rules that would incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives into American history and civics programs.

This, said the chief legal officers in states such as Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina, is a “thinly veiled attempt at bringing into our states’ classrooms the deeply flawed and controversial teachings of Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project,” which it described as “debunked.”

“Instead of teaching American history grounded in facts,” the rule would “prioritize an ideology that distorts American history. CRT supports the idea that America is a fundamentally racist country and that our institutions are inherently systematically racist.”

A number of Republican-dominated legislatures have piled on as well, proposing or passing laws that would prohibit teaching that America was founded on principles other than equality.

Isn’t it fascinating that some folks are so threatened by the idea that they benefit from the color of their skin that they can only see critical race theory as a racialized attack on them?

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I honestly don’t know how you can look at disparities between the races in America and conclude anything other than that we live in a country that has blithely disadvantaged people of color for hundreds of years.

For example, there is what the Brookings Institution describes as “staggering disparities” between the net worth of Black and white households. A huge achievement gap between public schools that serve primarily white students and those that serve students of color. There are stunning differences between how white and Black neighborhoods are policed, and who is arrested, and imprisoned for which sorts of crimes. (See: historical differences in criminal penalties for crack cocaine versus powdered cocaine.)

And let’s not forget, here in the world’s richest nation, Black maternal mortality is three times the rate of maternal mortality for white women.

Given all that, it’s impossible not to see the image of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, his hand so casually draped in his pocket, as a shamefully apt metaphor for the way white people, or their institutions, have held Black people down.

So why not study it, teach it and confront it?

Critical race theory offers a valuable way of looking at the reasons for widespread racial inequality. It’s not even particularly radical.

“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,” law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw recently told CNN. Crenshaw, who teaches at UCLA and Columbia law schools, helped pioneer the theory.

“Our founding ideals of liberty and equality were false when they were written,” wrote Nikole Hannah-Jones in her Pulitzer-Prize winning introduction to the 1619 Project. “Black Americans fought to make them true.”

The 1619 Project contained what some historians declared were factual inaccuracies — including an exaggeration of the role that protecting slavery played in the Revolutionary War. But the project’s reexamination of the country’s founding through the lens of how it exploited and mistreated enslaved people and their descendants was entirely worthy and remains a valuable tool for those looking to connect the past with present.

This country was indisputably founded on white supremacy, among other things, and that legacy has lived on in a million ways — the Jim Crow era after Reconstruction, lynchings, redlining, the civil rights struggles, mass incarceration, the backlash to the election of our first Black president and now the efforts to suppress voting rights, the refusal of Republicans to support a congressional investigation into the events of Jan. 6, which appear to have been orchestrated by white supremacists, and the histrionics of conservatives over critical race theory.

“America is an old house,” writes Wilkerson. “We can never declare the work over. … Not one of us was here when this house was built … but here we are, the current occupants of a property with stress cracks and bowed walls and fissures built into the foundation. We are the heirs to whatever is right or wrong with it. We did not erect the uneven pillars or joists, but they are ours to deal with now.”

Yet the Republican establishment in this country, still beholden to former President Trump, whose own history of racism is irrefutable, is working hard to pretend the foundation has always been solid — and to force schools into line with their views.

These inappropriate state intrusions into the classroom are nothing more than an attempt to — yes — whitewash our history, pretend the law is color-blind and stop the clock, once again, on progress toward racial equality.


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