Critical Thinking: American History Through a Lens of Race and How it Shapes our Future

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

For the first time in four decades, we have a new national holiday, the Juneteenth National Independence Day on June 19. It celebrates the liberation of Black American slaves from the last city enslaving them in Galveston, Texas.

All the Senate Republicans and all but 14 of the Republicans in the House voted in favor of establishing the holiday. Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mt., released a statement before the vote that captures Republican concerns festering within their ranks: “This is an effort by the Left to … celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.” As a result, Republicans have begun a national campaign opposed to teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public schools and in some state universities.

However, Michael Eric Dyson, author of Long Time Coming, told MSNBC that June 19 as a national holiday would not have happened without CRT’s moving people to grapple with race in our history and having to deal with it now. 

Rosendale and Dyson’s comments reveal a divide in this nation extending from when the first African slaves were brought into the North American Colonies in 1619. It is a battle over who has the political power to interpret our nation’s history and shape our future. Critical Race Theory is the current battleground.

Stephen Sawchuk, in a May issue of Education Week, aptly captures both sides in this struggle when he asks, “Is ‘critical race theory’ a way of understanding how American racism has shaped public policy, or a divisive discourse that pits people of color against white people?” He quickly notes, “the divides are not nearly as neat as they may seem.” Let’s have a look at those complexities.

Standardized history textbooks often credit the Civil War as the final resolution in achieving political equality of former African slaves as U.S. citizens. But some critical historical elements are often ignored. First, by our Constitution, “All persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.”

Importing slaves was outlawed in 1808. One could argue that all slaves born in the U.S. after 1808 could be considered citizens. Second, consider that the 13th amendment was passed nearly 60 years after the last slave was admitted. According to the Stanford School of Medicine’s Ethnogeriatrics, by 1860 only 3.5 percent of the slaves were over 60. Consequently, over 95 percent of the slaves were technically already U.S. citizens since they were “persons born in the United States.” Third, the Constitution declared that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining representation in the House of Representatives. This measure acknowledged slaves as persons and not simply property like livestock.

 Even though the constitution recognized and allowed slavery, it was silent on the status of slaves’ children. A legal argument could have been made that those children automatically were citizens and that their continued enslavement was a violation of their constitutional right. 

Why wasn’t that legal avenue taken? Because the slave-owning states could stop any such legislation in Congress. They were disproportionately represented in the House of Representatives, since 60 percent of their slaves figured into the number of representatives that they could send to Congress. In addition, they could influence the makeup of the Supreme Court, and that court’s Dred Scott decision would forcibly send a free slave in a non-slave state back to a slave state to be shackled again.

When considering these conditions in our history, one can understand why Dyson says that CRT began with legal scholars who saw that systemic racism was embedded in the law. He concludes that our laws have not been a neutral arbitrator on race relations.  Those biased laws extend from the federal to the state and municipal levels. And that brings us to where we are today. The fear, spearheaded by the Republican Party, is that CRT demeans America by suggesting that our laws since colonial days have been biased against black slaves and their descendants.

After the Civil War, that bias was most evident in the national politics in the presidential elections of 1868, which blatantly raised the fear of blacks having more political power than white voters. To some degree that power-shift happened, and the participation of Black voters was critical for Republican Ulysses S. Grant getting elected president. The Democrats, whose motto was “This is a White Man’s country, let White Men Rule,” ran Horatio Seymore. He lost by 305,000 votes, and a half-million newly enfranchised Black men voted for Grant. Seymore had supported the Crittenden Compromise, which would have guaranteed slavery in the constitution to end the Civil War.

Despite Grant’s victory, the former slave-owning states instituted laws that effectively eliminated Black political and economic power. They passed segregation and Jim Crow laws that ignored two constitutional amendments that they were expected to accept as a condition to admission back into the Union. Those were the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 granting Black Americans the rights of citizenship and the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870 giving Black American men the right to vote. Instead, the South adopted Black Codes designed to “replace” Black’s slavery with some laws as close to slavery as possible. Weary of the conflict, northern states moved onto other concerns. Black Americans — outnumbered and lacking the resources to fight against stronger forces — were abandoned to go it alone in trying to achieve full citizenship.

But CRT goes far beyond the machinations of the Southern slave-holding states. It raises questions of how laws at all government levels have hindered Black Americans’ power to exercise citizenship on par with white citizens. And that theory assaults the American narrative that we have been taught, America as the land of opportunity for all. 

When CRT challenges that storyline, it is seen as betraying our traditional image of a great, generous, and unique America. This tradition is based on the belief that a market economy can best provide those opportunities. Critical Race Theory appears to threaten the sanctity of preserving an unregulated marketplace when it shows how slaves were commodities in the market and the source of significant profits to their owners. 

Professor Matthew Desmond at Princeton University wrote that the combined economic value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. Cotton was the nation’s most valuable export grown and picked by enslaved workers. Two professors reviewing the 1860 census data reported that the median wealth of the wealthiest 1% of Southerners was more than three times higher than for the wealthiest 1% of Northerners, a sign of a feudal society. However, after the slaves were freed, since slaves had been considered personal property, the top 10% of the Southern wealth distribution experienced a 90% drop in the value of their personal property, and real property wealth was cut approximately in half. The wealthy oligarchy of the South was crippled, but not down. 

For the next 100 years, the new stratum of upper South wealth persuaded the white working poor that the freed Black slaves and their offspring would take jobs away from them. It was a fear also publicly expressed by many white workers in the North. Due to the power of states’ rights, what followed was a torrent of segregation and Jim Crow laws in many states. The segregationist influence was also a powerful voting bloc in Congress that lasted from the 1870s to the 1960s. They almost defeated President Lyndon Johnson’s Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Before then, segregationists pushed FDR’s federal programs to deny services to Black citizens. As Columbia University historian Ira Katznelson has documented, it was mainly at the behest of seniority-empowered Southern Democrats that farm and domestic workers — more than half the nation’s black workforce at the time — were excluded from New Deal policies, including the Social Security and Wagner Acts of 1935 (the Wagner Act ensured the right of workers to collective bargaining), and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which set a minimum wage and established the eight-hour workday.

Such are the historical facts. Conservatives may not want to dwell on them or even discuss them. What most frightens them is the Critical Race Theory, which links the long-lasting effects of slavery with systemic racism ingrained in America’s laws — the laws that have shaped our politics, culture, and social relationships. 

Conservatives believe this all-encompassing perspective has turned an enjoyable movie about our history into a horror show of whites oppressing Blacks. According to an Education Week analysis, that anger has resulted in legislators in 21 states, as of June 16, introducing bills that would restrict teaching CRT or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Five states have signed these bills into law.

This opposition to CRT is not limited to the South. Idaho Republican legislators cut $2.5 million from their 2022 state budget for colleges and universities, citing the teaching of CRT, which “seeks to highlight how historical inequities and racism continue to shape public policy and social conditions today.” They also passed a bill that bans the teaching of critical race theory in public and charter schools and universities in the state. But according to Republican Sen. Carl Crabtree, one of the sponsors, they declined to define critical race theory in the bill because “everybody has a different view” of what the term means.

Crabtree was honest. There is no set definition of Critical Race Theory because, as a theory, it is constantly changing. It’s been around for 40 years, and as any social, political, or legal theory ages, there arise multiple interpretations. That’s true of theories originating from either the left and the right: constitutionalism, socialism, and all the “isms” have spawned schools of thought that debate how to describe what they believe.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt signed a bill into law that prohibited teaching that “individuals, by virtue of race or gender, are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.” From what I’ve read, CRT does not focus on individuals being racist but institutions that promote policies that discriminate against people of color. For example, Kiara Alfonseca of ABC news wrote in her article, “Critical race theory in the classroom: Understanding the debate,” that CRT “analyzes benefits white people have in society, which is sometimes referred to as ‘white privilege.’ This refers to the concept that white people continue to be protected from the effects of systemic race-based discrimination because of their skin color.” That may result in a white person feeling guilty. But that’s up to the individual.

It must be admitted that advocates of CRT may also be undertaking a “mission impossible” in trying to convince most people in a nation that they must do something to help a minority which may result in fewer benefits to themselves. A noble and just pursuit, but one that doesn’t have many successful historical precedents to rely on. Along these lines, Stephen Sawchuk makes an astute philosophical observation that may just cut to the core of why there is so much resistance from some to CRT. He maintains that CRT is an extension of postmodernist thought, which is “skeptical of the idea of universal values, objective knowledge, individual merit, Enlightenment rationalism, and liberalism—tenets that conservatives tend to hold dear.” 

If CRT is rejecting those beliefs, then it has a steep hill to climb. Because universal values, objective knowledge, etc., are held dear by more than just conservatives. They are pretty much the groundwork of our society. Such an approach would put CRT on the defensive, and advocates would be forced to describe what beliefs would replace them. Once more, that doesn’t seem like a winning strategy for converting large parts of the nation to an arcane new theory to live by.

On the other hand, many of the CRT critics make claims that the proponents don’t make. One canard is that CRT tries to indoctrinate children with the idea that the United States is inherently wicked. Or, when a Republican Texas lawmaker believes “the term ‘white privilege’ blames children for actions of racism in the past and says critical race theorists believe if someone can’t acknowledge white supremacy or white privilege, then they are racist.” If that approach were taken, CRT would be accused of identifying individuals as racist if they disagree with the theory. Taking quotes from one or two people does not define an entire theory.

What is needed is a basic recognition of what has occurred in the past and how it has shaped our present reality. That is not a theory, so much as an exercise in understanding and thinking. It is a rational process that many of us hold dear. And it can lead to changing the laws so that we treat one another as citizens within a democratic and just society. 

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Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/changemakers/ Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics http://www.becomingacitizenactivist.org/

3 COMMENTS

  1. A marvelously temperate survey, particularly in its careful discrimination between the misleading notion that condemnation of a bias in the legal system is equivalent to condemnation of the human beings who espouse it.

  2. Yes, we are not what we pretend to be as a country .It is an impossible issue to fix.
    We should start off with free health care for ALL and build more schools to alleviate overcrowding – pay teachers based on merit thus improving the system for everyone.
    We should also save our resources for our citizens and let go of this melting pot theory that was never true.

  3. Many thanks, Nick, for your thoughtful commentary that emphasizes the complexities of the issue. You rightly emphasize the core of the theory that ought to be non-controversial: that our beliefs tend to become embedded in law and other social institutions. Beginning from that thesis, many different kinds of theoretical defenses and elaborations of critical race theory exist. Post-structuralism is just one of those defenses, one with which I disagree while at the same time trying to fully support critical race theory. Post-structuralism holds great appeal for those who are seeking to make a radical critique because it rejects the very foundations of reason that have been used to put the “civilized” over the “uncivilized.” Yet one can reject those political wrongs as abuses of reason without rejecting reason itself, and doing the latter, it seems to me, leaves one few resources for grounding a new vision for society.

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