Critical race theory backlash would keep the truth hidden

This article first published 6/23/21 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

When she taught at a prestigious Detroit prep school, Whitney Larkin would devote the first three weeks of her U.S. history course to an exploration of the Indigenous societies that preceded the arrival of the first European settlers. The textbook used by the class before Larkin began teaching the course glossed over this material in half a page, and the African American teacher thought it important that students learn about the pyramids of the ancient cities of Teotihuacan and the Cahokia, in addition to the Boston Tea Party.

“I want students to be clear that Indigenous peoples had highly complex societies that in many ways were superior to European ones. I go into great detail to emphasize this was not a barren, unpopulated land of hunter savages,” explained Larkin.

She said that while she was teaching the U.S. Constitution, a White student from an upper middle-class family responded to a question thusly: “The Constitution was written by old rich White men for old rich White men to keep them in power.”

Larkin responded, “I said, ‘Mic drop! My job here is done!’”

Some of the students’ parents, on the other hand, were not so keen about what their children were learning, and a coterie requested a meeting with Larkin and the dean of students. Larkin remembers meeting with three couples, although only the men spoke. When, they all asked, was she planning to teach “real” history?

“When I responded about White men’s history,” said Larkin, “they were shocked into silence.”

She was fired six months later.

Larkin’s experience four years ago shines a light on recent efforts to ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in schools. Created by legal scholars in the 1980s, critical race theory posits that only institutionalized racism can explain the persistence of profound racial disparities in the workplace, education, political representation, household wealth and health outcomes nearly two generation’s after the Civil Rights Movement. As of this month, 25 states—including two Minnesota border states, Iowa and Wisconsin—have introduced legislation to regulate how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in the classroom.

But as Larkin and other educators point out, critical race theory is really just a proxy battle in a much larger war over dueling narratives, one that accounts for the suffering of People of Color, women, and the poor, and another that absolves those who are responsible for that suffering.

“I certainly teach critical race theory,” Ariela Gross, a law professor at the University of Southern California told the MSR. “I want our students to have active debate. I don’t really see racism as individual prejudice. Individualizing it, we can let ourselves off the hook.”

As have many others, Gross noted that few, if any, elementary or high schools teach critical race theory, nor is it widely taught at U.S. colleges and universities. “That’s telling,” said Gross.

She compared the backlash against critical race theory to efforts by White politicians in the 1960s to rally the troops, as it were, to crush any challenge to their privileges in the workplace, education and banking. She refers to proposals to crack down on critical race theory as “education suppression” that is motivated by the same White insecurities as voter suppression efforts that are gaining momentum in the post-Trump era.

“Most of the people who are passing these laws have no idea what CRT actually is. We often talk about ‘waving the bloody shirt’ when White southerners wanted to get White people riled up and appeal to their racism and remind them of the Civil War.”

Whites, by-and-large, have always feared both the leveling effects of education and any vehicle by which the European settler project might be exposed for what it is: a racist colonization effort. Between 1865 and the mid-1870s, vigilante mobs set fire to scores of Freedmen’s schools, which were the precursor to universal public education. And many school districts across the South continue to refer to the Civil War as the “war of Northern aggression.”

Alternately, African Americans’ enthusiasm for “book learnin’” is the cornerstone of every Black social movement dating back to slavery. One administrator for the Freedmen’s Bureau—the federal agency responsible for managing the Reconstruction effort—compared Blacks’ support for public schools to a type of derangement, so “crazed” were they to learn.

A newly freed slave in Mississippi proclaimed, “If I nebber does nothing more while I live, I shall give my children a chance to go to school, for I considers education [the] next best ting to liberty.”

The tension between searching for truth and obscuring it is at the root of the debate over critical race theory. “This fight [over critical race theory] is more about the imagined feelings of White children learning the facts of history,” said Gross “There should be nothing taught that makes White children feel like they are racist or White Supremacists. It’s ironic because it’s being pushed by people on the side of the political spectrum who complain that their free speech is being limited.”

The timing is particularly troubling. The combination of the first African American president, Barack Obama, and a Great Recession that worsened the gap between the 99% and the wealthiest one percent, has deepened White anxiety, resulting in violence such as the January 6 attack on Capitol Hill. A broader public debate could help curb those violent impulses.

“It’s really dangerous when we start to shut down that history,” explained Gross.

Juneteenth: a tribute to Blacks’ unflinching will to be free

Photo: MGN. “Emancipation day celebration – later known as Juneteenth, Photo Date: 1/19/1900”

This article first published 6/23/21 by the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder

As the story is usually told, the secular holiday known as Juneteenth began two months after the end of a bloody, four-year Civil War, when General Gordon Granger and 2,000 Union soldiers disembarked at Galveston Island, Texas in mid-June of 1865 and made a horrific discovery:

Chattel slavery was still very much alive in Galveston.

Days later, Granger read five General Orders issued by the federal government, the third of which declared: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

The news of their liberation was akin to a thunderclap. The streets of Galveston exploded in spasms of cathartic joy; men hurled their hats into the air, women danced, the elderly wept.

This bacchanal on June 19th—the name inspired by merging the two words mimicking African Americans’ rapid-fire cadence—inspired the holiday that has been celebrated virtually every year since across the nation at backyard barbecues, block parties, town squares and city parks. In 1872 a group of African American ministers and businessmen purchased 10 acres of land in Houston and created Emancipation Park to host the annual Juneteenth celebration.

But the widely-publicized spate of killings of African Americans by White police and vigilantes—including Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and, here in Minnesota, Philando Castille, George Floyd and most recently Daunte Wright—has shone an even brighter spotlight on Juneteenth and sparked a reconsideration of the holiday as something more than just a cultural touchstone or street festival celebrating Black culture.

Related Story: A snapshot of Juneteenth events in the Twin Cities and beyond (updated)

What is often left unsaid in the retelling of Juneteenth’s origins is that it was not the product of liberal, White benevolence but Blacks’ political agency and unflinching will for self-determination. Among the Union troops who accompanied Granger to Texas were a contingent of colored troops from New York and Illinois who were livid when they discovered the continuing exploitation of slaves.

They approached Granger and told him in no uncertain terms that either he would do something about the situation or they would.

“One of the tropes about American life is that Black people didn’t fight for our freedom,” said Robert S. Smith, a history professor at Marquette University and the director of the Center for Urban Research, Teaching and Outreach. “The truth is that there is no union victory without very clear and robust engagement by Black people in the abolition of slavery.”

As noted by several historians—most notably W.E.B. DuBois—one of the factors that influenced Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation was that “slaves had started to act free anyway,” Smith said, by sabotaging the owners’ crops, organizing work slowdowns or sit-down strikes on the plantation, or simply walking off the job headed North.

In the year that followed Juneteenth, Blacks began to build Black institutions and communities and reassembled families that had been scattered to the winds by slavery. The system of White terror that began to emerge in 1877 after federal troops withdrew from the former Confederate states undermined Black progress that Whites saw as a threat, Smith said.

This foreshadowed the financial terrorism of the banks that pilfered the wealth of Black homeowners after the collapse of the subprime mortgage market, which saddled African Americans with predatory loans. The result is that homeownership is at record lows; about 44 percent of African American households own their home compared to 77 percent of Whites.

The irony is that Blacks today own no larger stake in the U.S. than they did when General Grangers’ troops arrived in Galveston 166 years ago. The question increasingly confronting African Americans today is how to summon the same ferocity, resilience, courage, and improvisation of the colored Union troops who dared deliver their ultimatum to General Granger.

More municipalities, institutions, and workplaces than ever before are recognizing Juneteenth this year, and many are giving employees Friday, June 3 a day off. The Movement for Black Lives Matter has called for June 19th to be made a national holiday, which was finally realized with Congresss’ passage of the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act on Wednesday. President Biden’s signed it into law on Thursday.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont also called for it to become a national holiday in 2019 when he recognized Opal Lee, an activist in Fort Worth who campaigned for a Juneteenth holiday.  The work of Lee and the late Congressman Al Edwards, who also pushed for the holiday, was recognized when the bill was passed in the House on Wednesday evening. “This has been a long journey with the work of our fellow Texans, the late Representative Al Edwards, and Opal Lee,” Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee stated.

Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African American studies at Duke University, told the New York Times: “I think Juneteenth feels a little different now. It’s an opportunity for folks to kind of catch their breath about what has been this incredible pace of change and shifting that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks.”

Ann Jeffreyes, a retiree and African American activist who attended Juneteenth celebrations when she lived in New York City and plans to attend events in the Bay area this year, said that Juneteenth is a vivid reminder that African Americans are far from the helpless victims they are often portrayed as in both the news and entertainment media.

“Through the most brutal form of slavery…our ancestors still celebrated life and plotted at the same time,” said Jeffreyes. “So yes, [Juneteenth] keeps us connected to our ancestors’ courage and persistence, resilience.”