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Friday, December 3, 2021

Smith: Is there common ground on our history?

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This past June, I wrote a column about critical race theory. My point can be summed up as follows:

“I cannot overemphasize the fact that CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools. It is taught in a few undergraduate courses but is mainly reserved for graduate school. (I marvel as I watch parents express outrage at the thought of CRT being taught in their kids’ school — especially since virtually none of them can even define it.)”

I was right that, as a rule, CRT is not being taught in our schools. I was also right that most of the people who are complaining about CRT don’t know what it is. However, I might have been “dead right.” In other words, the fact that CRT (as such) is rarely taught in K-12 schools somewhat misses the point. I lost sight of the maxim, “Don’t just win the argument; win the person.”

A month ago, I had a conversation with a Black woman — who is a Republican — regarding this topic. She said that the pandemic gave white suburban parents much more time to scrutinize their children’s school work. Many of them became alarmed by some of what they saw. They believe that their children are being taught that being white inherently makes them an oppressor.

After reading a great deal about this topic from several perspectives, I have found that there are two related phenomena occurring. One phenomenon is that a watered-down, youth-friendly version of CRT is being taught in some schools — though that is very rare.

Specifically, a few schools include in their curricula the notions that (1) America was founded on, and persists in, a racial caste system that overwhelmingly favors white people — including students; (2) people of color, especially Blacks, are still being victimized by that system; (3) despite some progress, we aren’t where we need to be; and (4) we collectively should take action to undo racism. This isn’t CRT, but its antecedents are there.

The other phenomenon is that an increasing number of schools (a much larger number than exists regarding the first phenomenon) are merely incorporating America’s history of racism into their curricula. This is a straightforward attempt to include some of the uglier aspects of American history, which have usually been excised from lesson plans. Including those episodes gives students a more honest and complete view of this nation.

Conservative whites tend to reflexively oppose virtually any discussion of the reality of racism in America, whether historical or contemporary. For them, CRT is merely a convenient target. Add to this the fact that right-wing political groups realized that this is another racial “wedge issue” to exploit — with school boards becoming the latest battleground. The result was as predictable as it is sad.

However, many such whites claim that they don’t have a problem with their kids learning about racism, as long as it is balanced with the ways in which America has successfully addressed it. I’ve decided to call their bluff. In every public school district across this nation, let’s empower bipartisan commissions — that would be created by superintendents and/or school boards — to create standards for addressing the topic of racism in America.

This effort would not involve the federal government; local school districts would decide what to teach. Members of the panels would all have to sign an integrity pledge that bound them to only include content from educational sources upon which they agree.

Unlike most school boards, the panels would be required to have an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. Long-registered independents would be added in districts wherein they comprise at least 30% of the electorate.

To be sure, I’m not retracting my views or giving a pass to people who rant about CRT and “racial agendas” in our schools. I am suggesting that it is crucial to strongly support the teaching of American history in a way that neither whitewashes the truth, nor is likely to cause white students to believe that they personally are at fault for our nation’s racist history. Equally as important, curricula should never consign children of color to believing that they are perpetual victims.

This is indeed a long, perilous and fine line to walk. But if we’re all genuinely serious about teaching our children about racism, the proverbial worn-out shoe leather will be well worth it.

Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at larry@leaf-llc.com.

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