One Way to Lose the Argument on Institutional Racism

 Tell the Complete Story of Our History –Get It Wrong and Be Further Behind Than Ever


The Tensions Over Critical Race Theory and Similar Approaches

One of the real lightning bolts in current domestic politics is the fuss over the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Never mind that darn few people know what it is, or that it is being taught as an academic discipline almost nowhere. Several states have passed legislation forbidding it being taught. Someone even started talk about putting cameras in classrooms, just to ensure teachers did not sneak it into the curriculum. Now that is just sad.

Why has this gotten to be such an issue? A case can surely be made that what we teach as US history is lagging. Why not get it right? Why not tell the whole story? Read on.

Why The Resistance? A Few Reasons, Some Understandable

Let’s do the easy part first. Some people hate the idea of anything like CRT because they are racists and will not tolerate anything that runs against their views about the superiority of one race over others. I think that is the smaller component in the resistance group, but there they are. Donald Trump and Stephen Miller told them they were right all along, and now we are stuck with them out from under their rocks, out in plain sight.

Others simply feel under siege. They feel like the country they know is under attack on several fronts and this is part of that attack. They fear Black Lives Matter, hear calls for police defunding, and more. This is a group susceptible to the canard that Being Woke is a bad thing.

And there are, of course, bad politicians and troublemakers who simply see this as a way to stir up their base. Make people angry and afraid and they will follow you, watch you, support you. Watch Fox “News” lately?

But I think the larger part of the resistance may be salvageable if those supporting the telling of a more accurate history can do this right. Put in its simplest forms, some people feel the country and what it stands for is under attack. That the CRT community wants to say that everything about America is false and evil and must be changed. In fairness, that is indeed what some are saying, but for the most part, that is a distortion that is neither accurate nor helpful.

The Burden – and the Opportunity – To Be Get It Right

There is a better path forward. Put in the most easily expressed phrase, it is simply to say that the United States is a unique country, one born of ideas more than georgraphy of a common ethnic heritage. We are a country of immigrants, of change. The US reinvents itself regularly. This is our strength.

But we have an obligation to tell it like it is, or that promise will never be delivered. The beautiful part of our history consists of those lofty goals and remarkable founding documents. I still marvel at the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. All of that which is good and true to our values should be celebrated and not lost in rancor. By all means, celebrate all of this.

But let us also be honest enough to recognize that much of the promise that is America does not exist, and never has, for many of our citizens. We can pretend that is not so and find ourselves permanently chained to racism, as we are still today in so many ways. We can resist looking in the mirror and acknowledging where we have fallen short (so far) and progress no further.

Many more of us than ever are now aware that both Truths are real – and must be acknowledged. That is our path forward. Let us celebrate the good and acknowledge the bad. The whole idea behind concepts like CRT is not to trash what exists, but to shine a light in the dark spaces and challenge us to live up to what we say we want to be as a people. An honest, balanced discussion, leading to corrective policies and understandings that can finally free us from the shackles of our history. That cannot be a bad thing to seek out.

America as a Promise More Than a Place

Allow me a couple of simple examples.

One of my all-time favorite things in American history is the GI Bill of the post WWII era. It created the modern American middle class. It sent veterans to college that never would have gotten there otherwise. It made homeowners of millions. What an amazing success story.

And yet, only in recent years did I come to know that most Black veterans could not get accepted into most colleges during this period. And the vast majority could not get a home loan – they and whole neighborhoods were redlined out of the equation. The written, clear policies doing this are right there in front of us, in black and white.

And so, there we are. We have a wonderful program with powerful results, and a travesty of injustice, the effects of which are with us today. Both truths are valid. Both must be told.

Go back further and look at landowner policies throughout our history, especially in the South. Examples are plentiful of Black farmers losing their lands to speculators and powerful people, most often because the land they owned came into their families right after the Civil War, without proper documentation. It was easy to steal from them.

Generations were denied the economic power of land ownership that otherwise would have been passed on and built upon over time. More recently, we see the same in minority neighborhoods being cleared for urban renewal, with little thought of how this affected those residents.

Again, we have a wonderful story of growth and development, and a terrible story of exclusion and misappropriation. We should be big enough to tell both stories, and to shape our priorities accordingly going forward. Doing right by all of us and making corrections where we can does not seem too large a burden for a great nation to bear.

Tell The Whole Story – Good and Bad

There we are. Let us be honest enough, courageous enough, and proud enough to tell our whole story to each other. No one should feel threatened by the simple act of acknowledging where we have fallen short of our own ideals. Those who would correct long-standing wrongs must be generous enough to acknowledge that there is also much to celebrate as worthy.

Simply put, let’s tell the truth – all of it, and go from there to be a better country. To deny the ugly truths or to cite only the failures is not good enough. We need not choose sides on this one. We just need to do it right.

           Bill Clontz

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2 replies to One Way to Lose the Argument on Institutional Racism

  1. Thanks Bill. I had never been aware of the GI Bill excluding Black soldiers and families. That should be known and taught. When I look back on what I was taught in my history and civics classes I realize that so much was just left out. Sad.

  2. Amen! We were really taught so little of the “real” American history. Amazing and disappointing.

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