July 26, 2021
Consider these contrasting takes about the purpose of critical race theory (CRT).
“A way of looking at law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country.”
– Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of CRT’s creators, 1981
“Teaching children that thanks to their skin color, they’re inherently evil.”
– Christopher Rufo and Corey DeAngelis, two of CRT’s many critics, 2021
In my most recent book of essays “Riding Elephants: Creating Common Ground Where Contention Rules,” I argue that conversations often founder when one person is speaking on the thought channel while the other is speaking on the feelings channel. This concept also connects with contentious issues; in the case of the above quotes, the first primarily engages the thought channel while the second engages feelings — and feelings, not thoughts, drive action.
Teaching history can also fall into this thoughts-feelings disconnect. Consider the conversation I had with my mom after reading about the United States’ Civil War in my third grade history book.
“What did you learn in school today?” she asked.
“That slavery was bad but not that bad,” I told her in a rapid singsong voice that annoyed adults around me. “Then there was the Civil War and everything was fine.”
“Well,” Mom said with a nervous laugh in her voice after a pregnant pause, “I think it’s a little more complicated than that.”
I didn’t truly realize how right she was until I started reading about history in my 40s and 50s, as high school history focused on facts at the expense of how those experiencing the events described in detached textbook prose felt about what they were experiencing. I avoided history as much as possible in college.
Injecting feelings into history is necessary yet dangerous, for an important part of history is myth: stories with at least a grain of truth that tell us who we are and how we got from there to here. Myths are important binding forces of every culture, for they give us a set of values and a certain sense of confidence. Myths powerfully connect with feelings.
So should we United States citizens believe the myth that our country is built upon the rock of revolutionary values leading to liberty, prosperity, innovation, justice, and charity driven primarily by mostly wise and kind White men under God, or should we believe the myth that we are built upon the shifting sands of stealth, slavery, and savagery driven primarily by mostly cruel White men who hijacked the Bible to fit their purposes? Well-taught history has an element of myth-busting, which can lead to feelings of confusion and hostility.
Myth, history, and CRT are tightly linked, as our understanding of the basis of racial inequality connects with our understanding of, and feelings about, how we got to where we are. Our take will be quite different depending on which historic myth we believe.
History is messy, with far more than a touch of gray. How do we mix and match the triumphs of a Declaration, a Constitution, a city on a hill, scientific achievements, and building back better with slavery, massacres, and gargantuan greed? How do we mesh multiple mismatched myths that course through our culture?
By doing a much better job of living out those Judeo-Christian values many of us white people insist that our country was built upon.
Why do too many of we White Christians view CRT as an attack on our character instead of a theory trying to explain why inequality based upon skin color is embarrassingly high more than 50 years after the passage of Civil Rights legislation? Why do too many of we White Christians insist on confusing racism with bigotry? Why do too many of we White Christians insist on focusing on the specks of others without first focusing on the logs we carry?
Are we White Christians really that fragile?