GUEST ESSAY: We need a comprehensive US history
The controversy about racism in America extends to how we think about it, talk about it, study it, teach it, chronicle it, and whose voices should be centered in the discussion.
The ascendance of the social justice movement in recent years prompted me to work toward a better understanding of racism in America. I've consumed a lot of media in that effort — books, articles and audio presentations — from liberal and conservative sources, and from Black and white voices. I’ve found it necessary to confront my own attitudes as a white person about race, including my implicit biases and recognition of my unearned advantages as a white person.
Racism is a multifaceted issue. No aspect of racism has generated more contention in recent weeks than Critical Race Theory (CRT). My study of CRT coalesced into this essay.
Although the controversy is new, CRT is not. It’s been in use by many academics at the graduate and professional level, particularly in law schools, since the 1970s. CRT is a specific approach applied to the study of the dynamics that have historically marginalized Black people in the U.S. It’s a way of thinking deeply and comprehensively about our country’s past in the search for root causes for the socio-economic inequities that persist in our country today.
CRT exposes the through-line of racism from the Atlantic slave trade in the Colonial era, institutionalized slavery in the United States up to the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, and the Civil Rights Movement, to the racial divide in our country today. It demonstrates the deliberate, systemic, discriminatory attitudes, policies and practices, both implicit and explicit, that have led to contemporary negative outcomes for Black people.
Kimberle Crenshaw, author, law professor, and a founder of the CRT framework describes critical race theory in an interview for the September 2021 issue of Vanity Fair magazine: “It was how to think, how to see, how to read, how to grapple with how law has created and sustained race — our particular kind of race and racism — in American society.”
The Federal Housing Authority’s redlining of Black neighborhoods from the 1930s through the 1960s is a prime example of government-sanctioned discrimination resulting in consequential, wide-ranging, negative outcomes. That policy created the template for the growth of American cities: crowded Black urban neighborhoods, ringed by majority white suburbs. It collaterally produced, with the help of a complicit Supreme Court (Milliken vs Bradley, 1974), the racially segregated public school system that persists today.
Discriminatory laws have created other, no less significant racial disparities, including the racial wealth gap; the criminalization of Black people, and mass incarceration; and the diminished health status of Black people, compared to whites.
How do we know these things? Critical race theory.
How will we know how not to do these things in the future? Critical race theory.
While researching CRT I waded through a deluge of misinformation. Contrary to what many sources maintain, CRT is not the same as anti-racism training. It’s not an ideology or policy. It’s not taught in K-12 schools. It’s not designed to shame anyone or to divide Americans along racial lines. It’s not as concerned with individual racist attitudes as it is with racism embedded in our institutions.
Two good articles included in professional publications that provide apt descriptions of and background on CRT are Janel George’s A Lesson on Critical Race Theory in the American Bar Association's January 2021 Human Rights Publication, (https://bit.ly/2VPZewy); and Stephen Sawchuk’s What Is Critical Race Theory, and Why Is It Under Attack? (https://bit.ly/3iGZgPP), from the May 18, 2021 EducationWeek.
I’ve read or sampled a number of reasoned, reputable books including: Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law; Heather McGee’s The Sum of Us; Critical Race Theory, Third Edition, by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic; How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi; and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. In addition, I recommend The Spiritual Work of Racial Justice, by Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ; and Stop Being Afraid and other resources by Dr. Amanda Kemp.
In a July 2021 interview for the New York Times, Nikole Hannah-Jones, the Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist for The New York Times Magazine, and creator of the 1619 Project, captured the spirit of critical race theory and provided a vision for America going forward.
“None of us are responsible for what our ancestors did. But we are responsible for what we do now. And we do have the ability to build a country that is different, that is not held hostage to the past. But we won’t do that by denying that upon which we were built. Because that past is shaping us. It is shaping our country, our politics, our culture, our economics, whether we acknowledge it or not. And all I’m saying is let us acknowledge that upon which we were built so that we can try to actually become the country of these majestic ideals. And I do believe the ideals are majestic, we just have failed to live up to them.”
Our nation’s history will not cohere until we recognize all the voices, Black and white, who share in it. Achieving equality for all in the United States is a matter of individual commitment as well as community action. It’s incumbent upon white people to take on the responsibility to fight racism. We can all be involved by learning about racism and civil rights from credible sources, developing social and political empathy toward people of different cultures, supporting efforts to bring about equitable communities, and voting for representatives who work for social justice.
Anne Kiefer is a Penn Yan resident. She is retired after a career in volunteer management. Currently, Anne does legislative advocacy on a volunteer basis for organizations involved in social justice. She is a member of the Yates County Democratic Committee and of Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community. She is an avid reader, runner and pickleball player. You can find her on Twitter at @anmalaki and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/annemkiefer.