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I wrote the following article for the opinion section of the New York Daily News. According to Education Week, “As of June 29, 26 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Nine states have enacted these bans, either through legislation or other avenues.” During his last year in office, Trump denounced critical race theory and the New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “The 1619 Project” and said that anyone who taught these materials was “indoctrinating” their students and turning them against America. He called for “patriotic education.”
I wrote the following:
Republican-led states across the country, including Texas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Iowa and New Hampshire, have passed laws to ban the teaching of “critical race theory”; CRT is an academic concept that was first developed 40 years ago and has never been taught in public schools. The Tennessee legislature went so far as to pass a bill restricting discussion of racism or sexism in the classroom.
This issue is personal to me, for two reasons: I grew up in Houston in the 1940s, when it was a completely segregated city; and many years later, I was a friend of the late Derrick Bell, the founder of critical race theory.
In the Houston of my youth, every public and private facility was racially segregated: schools, mass transit, restaurants, hotels, public swimming pools and everything else. Grocery stores had two water fountains, one marked “white,” the other marked “colored.” Public buses had a movable marker with the word “colored,” which consigned Black people to the back of the bus. If whites needed more seats, the marker was pushed back, and Blacks stood. By custom, a Black person entered the house of a white person only through the back door. When a white and a Black approached each other on the sidewalk, the Black person was expected to step into the road to let the white person pass. The customs of white supremacy were well understood and seldom, if ever, violated.
In school, our history textbooks taught us about great American patriots, all of whom were white. The only person of color mentioned was George Washington Carver, who discovered many uses of peanuts. When we studied the Civil War, there were heroes on both sides (my junior high school was named for a Confederate hero, Gen. Albert Sidney Johnston), but minimal mention of slavery or its cruelty. Reconstruction following the Civil War was taught as a time when Southern whites were oppressed by federal troops, opportunistic carpetbaggers, and ignorant Black politicians who ran their states into the ground.
It was many years later that I learned that this was the Confederate view of events, and that Reconstruction was a time when able Black men served honorably in Congress, and racially integrated state legislatures wrote new and progressive constitutions. And that, when Reconstruction ended in 1877, white Southerners quickly restored the status quo, replacing slavery with Jim Crow legislation that maintained racism, segregation and unequal opportunity for Blacks.
Many whites, myself included, believed that the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision, which overturned the fiction of “separate but equal,” marked the beginning of the end for racial segregation. The Civil Rights laws passed during the Lyndon B. Johnson administration in the mid-1960s strengthened the belief that racial inequality was defeated. The federal government and the federal courts would reverse any racial discrimination, we believed. No longer would places of public accommodation or public transit or public schools be allowed to bar Blacks, nor would Blacks be denied the right to vote.
This too was misleading. In the 1980s, I became friends with Prof. Derrick Bell, the first Black person ever to receive tenure at Harvard Law School. We had long discussions about whether racial progress was assured, as I then believed, or whether the changes were superficial, as he believed. Derrick insisted that progress was minimal because racism was so deeply rooted in American institutions. He is called the founder of critical race theory, which holds that racism is systemic and that Blacks will never achieve equality until we reckon with the past and confront the systems and beliefs that allow racism and segregation to persist, blighting our society.
An example is housing patterns, which did not evolve by accident or choice, but because — as Richard Rothstein showed in his book “The Color of Law” — racially discriminatory rules were imposed by the federal, state and local governments. Segregated neighborhoods produce segregated schools.
Contrary to the Republican propaganda machine, Derrick Bell was not a Marxist. He was not anti-white. Critical race theory is not taught in schools but debated in law schools. The current furor now threatens to roll back the inclusion of Black history in the history curriculum and to criminalize teaching about racism.
That would be a shame, because a nation can’t escape the sins of its past without confronting them directly. Grade school children should learn about the heroes of all races and ethnicities who helped to build our democratic institutions. High school students should learn about the crimes committed against Black people, the treatment of them as less than human, the lynchings, the massacres. This is not harmful to students, as Republicans claim. It is a necessary reckoning with our nation’s past. Democracy and unity must be built on honesty, not lies and ignorance.