From the July-August 2021 issue of News & Letters
by Robert Taliaferro
In the early 1980s white prisoners in a Midwestern prison sent a request to the warden seeking permission to form a “white culture group” similar to the other culture groups in the prison at the time. The warden, who was white, refused the request, responding, “…America is our white culture group.”
Today there is a heated debate over the teaching of critical race theory, especially in some areas of the country still influenced by Donald Trump and his supporters. Critical race theory discusses issues like white privilege and systemic racism, but it also helps a nation to understand how far it has come, and how far it needs to grow, when it comes to issues of racial equality.
RACISM AS A MEASURE OF U.S. SOCIETY
Opponents of the idea argue that teaching critical race theory in schools would create a conclave of people who would be taught to hate America. Those opponents also argue that teaching about systemic racism and white privilege gives the impression that all white Americans are racist, which is as far from the truth as it would be to say that this country is a “flawless” utopia.
Systemic racism is not about singular incidents of discrimination propagated within a culture; it is about defined ideas that are adopted by a society as a whole, based on misinformation and the reliance on “allowed” racial and cultural stereotypes, that are not acknowledged because they have been institutionalized and cemented within the nation’s consciousness.
Systemic racism is about definitive acts supported by institutions—regardless of their societal affiliation—and how the inadequacies of those institutions relate to their members. Eventually those obtuse concepts affect all members of the community regardless of their race. Most of all, systemic racism is about being supportive of revisionist history, which critical race theory is designed to challenge. This is what many opponents of the theory seem to find the most disturbing.
Critical race theory is more than teaching about systemic racism as it is applied to the Black community; it is about systemic racism being propagated in all communities of color; it’s about sharing those lessons with whites and people of color alike.
THE POISON OF SYSTEMIC RACISM
Critical race theory is about discussing “The Trail of Tears,” where several Indian nations were forcibly removed from their homelands; it’s about the 1890 massacre of old men, women and children at Wounded Knee, S.D., by government troops; it’s about the persecution and murder of Chinese immigrants who helped build railroads during the late 19th century; it’s about the unprosecuted lynchings of thousands of Blacks in this country and the 1921 massacre of Blacks in Tulsa, Okla., and the 1923 massacre of Blacks in Rosewood, Fla., and yes, it’s about slavery and its lasting effects.
Though we have taken positive steps forward regarding race, for every step forward, the country also takes two steps back. This year we celebrate Juneteenth as a national holiday; at the same time we allow race norming, and other processes, to institutionally marginalize people of color. Despite marking the end of chattel slavery, a remnant of that era is still codified in our national Constitution as a current legal premise.
While we herald a new understanding of many national tragedies visited upon people of color throughout the nation’s history, over 400 proposed partisan laws designed to complicate or abrogate one’s right to vote—especially if you are poor, elderly, or a person of color—are currently being discussed in nearly every state in the country.
The future of this country is not set in stone or defined by the worn partisans who now occupy federal and state legislatures; it is as fluid as the multitude of rivers which flow within its borders.
The future of this country lies within its youth and their ability to take the present, and past, and mold it into a viable future. This cannot be done if the past is whitewashed, with the brush of half-truths, by fools who are afraid of change.