Critical Race Theory And How American History Is Taught – The New York Times


The controversy over American schools teaching about race and racial histories has reached a strange juncture. It is becoming difficult to understand the arguments.

On the one hand you have conservative state lawmakers taking aim at progressive ideas with scattershot legislation, whose target depends on which bill you read and how you interpret vague or sweeping language.

On the other you have progressives, until recently breathing the sweet air of revolution, suddenly denying that they are interested in anything radical at all. Particularly, progressives began to insist that C.R.T. was not being used by conservatives as a general term for opposing educational strategies. C.R.T. can be either academic and insignificant (just high-level graduate school stuff), or anodyne & uncontroversial. It’s just a way to tell kids about slavery & racism.

So let’s try to give the debate a little bit more specificity. What is the new progressive agenda, and which parts have led to backlash? There are two ways to answer this question, and they are not necessarily related. So, we will start with the first.

One answer is that progressives want to change the way schools teach American history. They are trying to eradicate the ghost of Lost Cause Historiography, a romanticization of Confederacy that haunts many textbooks in the South. They are also looking to broaden the narrative about race beyond Civil War and civil rights, by reviving stories from African-American resistance under slavery, and the history and subjugation of African-Americans starting in 1870s.

This goal has been part of the new racial progressivism from the start: Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous 2014 Atlantic essay on reparations, which reopened some of these debates, was as focused on the neglected history of Jim Crow as on any specific policy proposal.

However, some on the Left have another goal. To weave these revisions together into a more radical narrative U.S. history as an entire. It casts a colder look at Lincoln’s slow progress to abolition, portrays slave labor as the foundation of white American wealth, and paints the Republic as just a facade for racist and settlercolonialist oppression.

The biggest zone of controversy lies where the second project, the recovery of memory, blurs into the third one, the radical critique — where the impulse to memorialize Tulsa gives way to the impulse to take Lincoln’s name off a San Francisco school, where the indictment of slave owning gives way to an indictment of the American Revolution.

This newspaper’s 1619 Project debate is an excellent example. Because it did multiple things simultaneously, it was praised for expanding historical knowledge about slavery, race, and history, as well as elevating certain interpretations, such the “new history of capitalism”, a cotton-centric view of American prosperity, which imply a deeper condemnation.

Progressives feel that the right desperately wants to believe in American innocence, as evidenced by the backlash to 1619 or similar efforts. The conservatives object to the most radical components of progressive revisionism but not the whole project. As the historian Matthew Karp notes in a perceptive essay for Harper’s, compared with just a generation ago the position of many conservatives has shifted, becoming explicitly anti-Lost Cause, anti-Confederate flag — and, in the recent congressional voting, mostly pro-Juneteenth as well. The right is abandoning Lee to rally to Lincoln in the contest with the new progressivism. Karp stress for its nationalist political purposes but accepts a new center for historical discourse than that which existed even back when I was in highschool.

Similarly, Benjamin Wallace-Wells of The New Yorker, reporting on the Texan battle over race and education, notes how quick the Republican spokesman in the legislative debates was to make concessions to the history of racism and discrimination, the failure of the ideals of 1776 to initially extend beyond “white property-owning males.”

This means that you could imagine, out of this controversy, potential forms of synthesis — in which the progressive desire for a deeper reckoning with slavery and segregation gets embedded in a basically patriotic narrative of what the founding established, what Lincoln achieved, what America meant to people of many races, even with our sins.

Except, of course, the controversy isn’t only about history. Wallace-Wells points out that the Texas Republicans are most concerned about how to teach children racism today – about the racial structures of society, their identity within them, and the possible culpability or obligation they may have.

I’ll be discussing those topics in the next column.

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