Nobody Knows Anything About CRT: Some Thoughts on CRT, Teachers, and Cameras in Classrooms

Here is the thing about the debate over Critical Race Theory in our schools: almost nobody on either side of the debate has any idea what they are actually talking about.

Critical Race Theory is not, as many conservatives would have you believe, any and all talk about race as a social construct or systematic oppression. Critical Race Theory is also not, as many liberals would have you believe, simply the teaching of the “real” history of race relations in America. These people bloviating on tv and social media about CRT and how it does this or that: they just simply don’t know what they are talking about. So my first piece of advice when thinking about this is, ignore almost everyone who makes declarative statements about what CRT does or is.

I don’t say this as the CRT expert you should be listening to. I also don’t have a lot of clarity on what it is. And I actually studied the subject! In my Masters studies, I took an entire course on Race in America that drew heavily on CRT; I also took a course on critical theory more broadly, which pulled on aspects of CRT while also focusing on the roots of critical theory in the Frankfurt School and especially the liberatory pedagogies of Paulo Friere. So, sitting here writing this, while I am certainly no expert – far from it, in fact – I can say confidently that I do know more about the subject than 99% of those who are spending all their time on your television or social media feed insisting they know what’s happening.

Here’s a hint: they don’t. This especially goes for those on cable news and those holding elected office. Their goal is not to inform or protect you. It’s to draw your attention, and they do that best by trying to scare you.

So, here are a few things that I believe are and are not true about CRT in American schools.

First, when most people on both sides of this debate say “Critical Race Theory”, they almost certainly don’t mean the school of legal and social theory that aims to critique the American legal system, as developed by folks such as Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado. So, right off the bat, the term CRT is simply a convenient shorthand for whatever other political hobbyhorse the person has.

Second, liberals are wrong to dismiss the concerns of parents about what their kids are and aren’t being taught about race relations. It is right that we are beginning to explore a fuller, more honest history of race in America (more on this in a moment.) But, bringing narratives and practices around declaring and critiquing privilege, or forcing students to declare racial guilt, or encouraging race essentialism: none of these things has a role in K-12 classrooms. This is what many parents are concerned about, even if that concern may be baseless. We should be doing our best to reassure parents, by being open and honest about our curriculums, instead of being dismissive and sarcastic. As a public school teacher, I want buy in from parents, not anger and suspicion. Thus, I have no problem answering questions about curriculum and sharing information, and I don’t know many teachers who feel differently. So, liberals, let’s be a little less dismissive about the concerns of real parents.

Third, contrary to the narrative of conservative nationalists, we have actually done a really bad job for a long time of teaching the real, sordid history of American racial relations, and history and civics curriculums need to by and large be rethought. Many schools gloss over Reconstruction, over Jim Crow, over the role slavery and its legacy played in our nations founding and the lives of those we often hold up for unqualified praise. We have ignored the role of racism in the New Deal, the racial backlash of the 70s and 80s; we have glorified many historical figures who should be understood more critically. These are important conversations to be having in classrooms, and the only way to do that is to develop honest and rigorous curriculums, and by supporting and protecting teachers who are the ones bringing this knowledge to our kids. The idea that American history is nothing but glory and patriots and freedom is propaganda, and it does nothing but hurts the cause of healthy patriotism many conservatives claim to value. Teaching honest history is the only way to build a better future together.

Finally, and most importantly in my eyes: teachers and schools are not the enemy. CRT has become a weapon that anti-public school voices have found in their long running attempt to kill public schools in favor of private ones. Teachers are not evil state actors out to indoctrinate your children. Teachers are your neighbors, your friends, and your family. Teachers want your children to succeed, and they want to teach them the truth while helping them grow.

Here in Oklahoma, and elsewhere, there is a new line of attack from anti-public school conservatives: the idea that we must now put cameras either in classrooms or on teachers, in order to “monitor” what they are teaching our kids. In short, this is a really, really terrible idea. (Not to mention, probably illegal, unconstitutional, and unworkable.) The idea comes with the rhetoric that teachers are merely “government employees” who “work for me” and that “I have the right to supervise my employees.” Often, this language comes from the same people who spend a lot of time exercised about government overreach and privacy invasions.

Cameras in classrooms is not only a gross invasion of privacy for teachers and for students. It also won’t work to make schools better. Oh, it may work to scare teachers away from difficult (but necessary) discussions. And that is probably the goal of many of the advocates of cameras in classrooms. But it will make schools worse, and damage the education students receive.

Here are some hard truths to know about schools:

Sometimes, your kid will succeed. Sometimes, they will fail. They will experience both.

Sometimes, your kid’s teacher will succeed. Sometimes, they too will fail. Teachers, like you, are human and fallible. And teaching, for those who have never done  it and thus don’t know, is really, really hard.

Your kid will learn about lots of things you like and agree with. Your kid will also learn about lots of things you don’t like or agree with. Such is life.

You do not have to market cornered on what is true or good. If you are trying to stamp out every piece of contrary or conflicting information out of your kid’s life or classroom, you are going to be both grossly unsuccessfull, and also damaging to your kid’s future well-being. By removing the presence of hard debates and alternate ideas, you are setting them up for failure in life, as they become unable to critically and honestly grapple with hard things.

Finally, again, teachers are not your enemy. In addition, teachers aren’t unaccountable in the classroom. Teachers are constantly observed; we have other adults in and out of our classrooms all day. We must turn in lesson plans. We cannot just ignore the curriculum. We cannot push politics or religion or personal opinions on our students. Putting cameras in our room won’t stop your kid from learning things you don’t like or agree with. But it will prevent us from having that one-on-one conversation with the kid being abused by their mom at home. It will prevent us from having that five minute conversation about last night’s game to connect with that one kid we are struggling to connect with. It will prevent us from being everything we need to be for our students.

Teachers are not indoctrinating your kids. But teachers are also not shielding them. Trust our schools to do their job, and if you don’t, then get involved in a constructive, useful way to make them better. And, for God’s sake, please stop listening to all those out there who want to scare you with stories of indoctrination in the service of their political power games. They don’t know what they are talking about. Perhaps they should spend a little more time in school.

I strongly, strongly recommend this article at FIRE for more information on what is actually happening in schools regarding CRT.

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In Defense of the Classics, or Why Racism is Not Aristotle’s Fault

In his most recent newsletter, Andrew Sullivan takes on an idea that has gained traction on the woke left: the idea that the classics are somehow conveyors of white supremacy. Here’s Sullivan:

My own classical wonderment came from learning Latin. From the age of 11 to 18, at my selective high school, I studied, translated, and wrote in Latin. My inner gay-boy nerd marveled at its logic and near-total consistency, the matrix of its grammar, and, over time, even the prose style of its greatest writers. I came to chuckle at Catullus, and at the deadpan irony of Tacitus; I learned how to write sentences by reading Cicero. I shared some of the excitement that so many first experienced when these texts were recovered and engaged again in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

This strange, ancient, muscular language was also a key to the texts, rituals, and prayers of my church, opening up another dimension of meaning as well. It felt as if, stuck in a small town in England in the dreary 1970s, I had been given the keys to live in another universe. My one regret was not taking Ancient Greek. Imagine if I could read the Gospels in the original!

But I read in the New York Times this week, as one does, that, in fact, I was deluding myself. Rather than being liberated, as I felt I was, I was actually being initiated into “white supremacy”. And there is now a broadening movement in the academy to abolish or dismantle the classics because of their iniquitous “whiteness”.

Andrew is referring to a recent NYT piece profiling former classicist Dan-el Padilla Peralta, who had a conversion of sorts, away from being a fan of the classics (and a trained scholar) towards becoming an advocate for “dismantling” the classicist emphasis on the ancient texts from Greece, Rome and the Mediterranean that undeniably shaped Western thought. Peralta, and many other activists and scholars, have latched onto the idea that somehow texts like Plato’s Republic or the writings of Cicero perpetuate white supremacy. Sullivan points out this ridiculousness of this claim:

Racial “whiteness” as a concept would, of course, have been all but meaningless to all the ancient writers I grew to love. It’s beyond even an anachronism. How on earth do you reduce the astonishing variety and depth and breadth of texts from an ancient Mediterranean world to a skin color? How do you read Aristotle and conclude that the most salient quality of his genius was that he was “white”?

Andrew is right, of course. The idea that these texts are problematic because of American-style racism – a phenomena that really took off a millennium-and-a-half after these works were created – is ludicrous, and more importantly, dangerous. Racism is a real and persistent problem in our world today, a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and pseudo-scientific theories. It arises from the needs of American political and economic institutions built in the 16th and 17th centuries, whose legacies are own systems are built on top of today. Turning attention away from these purveyors of injustice, and spending time trying to tie Aristotle’s contextual and ancient justifications for slavery to the racism of post-bellum America, is not just intellectually dishonest, but also a distraction and turn-off that the fight for racial justice in America just simply can’t afford.

None of this should be construed as a denial of the history and effects of racism in America today. I’ve been very clear on this blog about my support for the work of racial justice. I want that work to succeed. But this is not the way to do it. All this kind of performative wokeness does is discredit itself for its intellectual dishonesty, distracts from the important issues facing minorities and their communities today, and turns off potential allies that we need for progress to happen. Not to mention, it also spiritually and intellectually impoverishes our culture to cut out entire swathes of scholarly work and history on the basis of authorial identity alone. And it perpetuate the worst kinds of stereotypes about the fight for racial justice, confirming for those who are wavering that what progressives and liberals really want is not a better society, but instead no society at all, at least not for those considered “sinners” according to the dogma of the woke fundamentalists (and who among us isn’t?)

I am spending this year slowly reading Augustine’s City of God. I look forward, after that, to digging into Aristotle and Aquinas, as well as some Marcus Aurelius and revisiting Plato’s Republic for the first time since undergrad. I received a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey for Christmas that I’m looking forward to. I’ve relied heavily the last few years on Hauerwas, Moltmann, Tillich, Barth, Wittgenstein, Tolstoy, MacIntyre and Bonhoeffer. And I’ll top all of that off by offering up a reminder of my love for St Paul. I read and engage all these figures not because I’m trying to court white supremacy. I read them because, like it or not, these are the voices and ideas much of modern society, and even more importantly, Christianity itself are based on. You can’t think and write and talk about philosophy and literature and culture and faith and theology without these voices; they shape Christianity and the ways all of us think in foundational ways many people don’t even realize. They have influenced the world in ways we can’t escape, nor should we want to. And we can advocate for considering and reading and engaging more diverse voices today without throwing out these giants that those diverse voices rely on too (whether or not they like it or admit it.) Far from being problematic, these texts are in fact beautiful, and powerful, and can be impactful resources for fighting injustice and inequality. Anyone who tries to make the argument that the classics somehow stifle the fight for freedom and rights today has clearly never engaged the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, upon whom the very concepts of liberty and political rights as we understand them depend for their very existence.

I had a conversation the other night with a friend where we were reflecting on the decline of the academy and the liberal arts. One thing this friend noted from his time at seminary was the shocking fact that many of the students he attended with never in three or four years had to read Augustine. In many (if not most) colleges and universities today, students not only don’t engage the classics, but in the narrow pursuit of technical vocational competency, most never have to engage cultural and literary touchstones and classics. This is an incalculable loss to our body politic and our cultural heritage. We cannot form the kind of educated and informed populace necessary for the flourishing of democracy, and the ideals of equality and justice, that so many long for, without drawing on the power of the traditions that formed us in the first place. And its not just a loss because of the political impact; it’s a loss because simply because these works are good and beautiful, and to miss out on the good is always a tragedy. Beauty is a good in and of itself (as any one who has taken the time to read Aristotle or Augustine would learn).

I’ll give Andrew the final word on this note, as he highlights the importance of these ancient voices for figures like MLK and Malcolm X:

What King grasped, it seems to me, is the core meaning of a liberal education, the faith that ideas can transcend space and time and culture and race. There are few things more thrilling than to enter a whole new world from another era — and to see the resilient ideas, texts, and arguments that have lasted (or not) through the millennia. These ideas are bound up, of course, in the specific context and cultures of the past, and it is important to disentangle the two. But to enter the utterly alien world of the past and discover something intimate and contemporary is one of the great joys of intellectual life. MLK wasn’t the only classics student among the great civil rights leaders. Malcolm X was too.

May we have the courage and the wisdom these men had to draw on our shared cultural legacy as we continue trying to build a better world.

Party Realignment: A History of Political Parties and Racism in America

Let’s have a history lesson today. History is a fascinating topic because, in studying the events of the past, you can observe the way societies and people change, and the human drama that plays out as a result of those changes. One of the reasons I love history so much is because the stories of the past – of the fall of the Roman Republic, of the American Revolution, of the tumults of Tudor England and the emergence of Protestantism across Europe, just to name a few of my favorites – are better and more exciting stories, full of pathos and intrigue, than any fiction writer could ever conceive. Reading about these great moments in history, and the people and decisions that shaped them, reveals that change is an inevitable part of the human condition, that not only do circumstances change wildly, but also people and institutions change constantly, often much more rapidly and unpredictably than we could ever envision.

I’ve been thinking about these things recently as I have watched the debate rage again about Confederate statues, the legacy of the Civil War, and the role of our two major political parties across that time. So I wanted to take a few minutes today to address that last topic. Here’s the main thing you need to understand: the parties today are very different, both ideologically and in composition, than they were 50 years ago, 100 years ago, or 150 years ago. If you think the Democratic and Republican Parties that we have today are basically the same as they were when they emerged from the Civil War, well, have I got a story for you. Buckle up.

The two parties we have today formed before the Civil War. The Democratic Party finds its roots almost at the beginning of our nation, in the wake of the Era of Good Feelings, when Jefferson and Madison’s Democratic-Republican Party had a monopoly on national electoral politics for the better part of 25 years at the beginning of the 19th century. As that single party rule proved untenable and began to crack, Andrew Jackson burst onto the scene, and he and Martin Van Buren crafted the Democratic Party in opposition to Henry Clay’s Whigs. Democrats were the party of the frontier person, of small-holding farmers, and of southern agriculturalists, including almost all of the nation’s slaveholders. As the Party coalesced over the thirty years leading up to the War, the locus of power in the Party shifted further and further southward, until in 1860, at the Party convention to select a candidate for President, the Party split across sectional lines, with Northern and Southern Democrats both nominating their own candidates for President that year (Stephen Douglas and John Breckenridge, respectively), both of whom lost to Abraham Lincoln. With the onset of the war, and in the aftermath, northern Democrats basically disappeared, and the Democratic Party became a regional party of Southern interests, as many former Confederates moved back into the party. James Buchanan, a Democrat, left office in 1861; over the next 65 years, only one Democrat (Grover Cleveland) would assume the Presidency, as their regional coalition could never amass the national political power needed to win office.

One thing that is important to know about the Democratic Party in the South is that, yes, they were the Party that supported and benefited from the rise of the KKK and other White Supremacist groups. Founded by six former Confederate officers in Tennessee in December of 1865, the group was led by former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest, and one of its main goals was pushing out “carpetbagger” Republican politicians across the South. The Democratic Party supported the group, and viewed them as allies in their fight for power and white supremacist politics.

The Republican Party, on the other hand, formed in the decade leading up to the Civil War, from the remnants of the Whig Party as it collapsed, and as more Westerners joined the Union. The Party ran its first candidate for President in 1856 in John C. Fremont. From the beginning, the Republican Party was primarily concerned with stopping the spread of slavery any further west; Fremont’s campaign slogan was “Free Soil, Free Speech, and a Free Press.” Abraham Lincoln, in his 1860 campaign, doubled down on this; his election was a clear sign to the southern states that anti-slavery forces were aiming to halt and even end the practice of slavery. Their secession was a direct response to the election of Lincoln. Following the war, and the death of Lincoln, the party was largely dominated by a group of Radical Republicans, who pushed for full and equal rights for black Americans. The first black elected officials in the South during Reconstruction were all Republicans. For the next 65 years, Republicans would dominate national politics, even as they compromised with Democrats and made the conscious decision to abandon Reconstruction and build the Jim Crow system of “Separate but Equal.”

Let’s jump to 1932. While the nation technically had only two parties, in reality there were really four parties operating in electoral politics. First, you had Southern Democrats, the Party of George Wallace and Strom Thurmond and other unrepentant segregationists, a group predicated on white supremacy, Lost Cause mythology, and the maintenance of Southern power in electoral politics. Next, you have Northern Democrats, folks like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Al Smith, and Woodrow Wilson, folks who are more interested in building up working class power in the labor union movement and protecting the gains of the Progressive Era. Third is the Liberal wing of the Republican Party, mostly concentrated in the Northeast and out West, the party of folks like Norman Rockefeller and Dwight Eisenhower and most of the Presidents of the first quarter of the 20th century – people like Teddy Roosevelt, Taft, Coolidge, Harding, and Hoover. This group is focused on pro-business policies and a strong military. They are, through and through, the Establishment. Finally, you have conservative Republicans, folks like Barry Goldwater and Robert Taft, concerned with state’s rights and rolling back the Progressive Era and then the New Deal. These four groups, for the sake of electoral success, grouped into the Parties; Southern Democrats ceded ground on labor rights and working class policies in return for maintaining the racial status quo in the South; Liberal Republicans ceded ground on national government power in return for large military budgets and business-friendly policies. This system worked well to create political stability for the better part of 60 years, albeit at the expense of black and brown bodies, who were forced into segregation and official discrimination in order for a white peace to be kept in the nation.

This carefully constructed system all started to come apart in 1948. At the Democratic Party Convention that year, as the Party re-nominated Harry Truman, Northern members led by Hubert Humphrey and Sen. Paul Simon fought for and won a Civil Rights plank in the platform, causing Southern delegates to walk out and form their own Dixiecrat Party for that election, nominating Strom Thurmond for the Presidency (Truman won the nation election any ways.) Over the next twenty years, a phenomena known as Realignment played out in electoral politics. Northern Democrats gained control of the Party, nominating Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960, both of whom were strongly pro-Civil Rights. As this happened, and Southern Democrats left the party, they saw an opening in the nonexistent Republican Party in their states. Able to align their own state’s rights stance on segregation and racial issues with the pro-small government ethos of big business Republicans, many moved into the Republican Party, which lacked any real power in the South and was thus open for anyone willing to give it winning prospects.

A few important dates in the history of Realignment: first, in 1968, the Democratic Party nominates Hubert Humphrey, replacing a retiring Lyndon Johnson, a Southerner who nonetheless throughout his long political career had been pro-Civil Rights, culminating in his spearheading the push for the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, and his working relationship with Martin Luther King Jr and other Civil Rights leaders. Meanwhile, Southern Democrats have one last gasp, nominating George Wallace as a Segregationist candidate who wins the South and helps usher Nixon into office. Next is 1972: in his national landslide, Nixon becomes the first Republican to ever sweep the South. Next: 1976, Democrats nominate Jimmy Carter, the first time the Party nominated a candidate from the Deep South since the aforementioned Breckenridge, in 1860. Democrats felt confident nominating Carter because Southern segregationist forces in the Party had mostly left by this point, and the few that remained were basically powerless in presidential politics. This would be the last time Democrat are ever competitive in the South. Reagan basically sweeps the South both times he won (Carter won his home of Georgia in 1980) and Republicans have had a stranglehold on the region ever since. One more date: 1994, the Gingrich Revolution, wherein Republicans win the House for the first time in 40 years by completing Realignment, as Republicans win across the South at the Congressional and state level.

So what does all this mean for politics today, for our current debates over Confederate monuments and naming things after racists and the fight for Black Lives? The main thing it means is that American history is complicated and messy and full of compromises and shifts and intricacies. It also means that if you are looking at the ideological makeup of the parties in, say, 1888, or 1924, or even 1967, to decide which party aligns with you today, you are doing everything wrong. The Parties today are wildly different from the Parties of the past. In politics, things change often, they change fast, and they change in ways that can’t be predicted ahead of time, but which have massive reverberations through time. There is a reason the Republican Party is powerful in the South and among white voters, and why the Democrats win the Northeast and the black vote, and it’s not because Democrats are still the Party of John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, and Republicans are still the Party of Thaddeus Stevens and Abraham Lincoln. That rapid change over time, and the shifting of political currents and priorities, and the contingency of political circumstances at any one moment, means that politicians and leaders from 150 years ago would have a hard time finding a home in either political party today, not because those parties have degenerated or something, but because things are just different today than they used to be. The priorities of people in the past were simply different from ours today, even if some similarities across time still exist. You can’t define the Parties of today by who they used to be, whether that was one hundred years ago, or four years ago. Parties are fluid, evolving, and changing institutions, reacting in real time to the realities of group interactions within their ranks.

At the same time, this isn’t an attempt to relativize or neutralize the importance of ideas and policies in the face of difficult and shifting historical currents. In fact, I’m aiming at the just opposite idea with all of this: ideas matter. Truth matters. Historical knowledge matters, because it informs our world today. The Republican Party of today is not the Party of Abraham Lincoln and the Radical Abolitionists of the mid-19th century. That Party was rabidly anti-slavery, and it kick-started the movement that eventually coalesced into the Civil Rights movement, even as that movement left a compromising and equivocating Republican Party behind. The Republican Party made a conscious choice, in the 60s and 70s, to align itself with the interests of Southern segregationists, making a similar compromise the party had made with Liberal Republicans, to safeguard free markets and military might at the price of ceding the black vote. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party today is not the Party of George Wallace any longer. And while the Democratic Party in 2020 is far from perfect (don’t even get me started on its problems) one thing the Party has done somewhat well is embrace the legacy of the Civil Rights movement, which was left abandoned in the wake of the Realignment, and become the party of diversity and the use of federal power to ensure the civil and human rights of all people.

So here is your takeaway from this: the next time someone tells you the Democratic Party is the party of slavery and the KKK, you can look at them and say “yes and no, it’s much more complicated than that” and watch their black-and-white, highly ordered worldview start to crumble. You can educate them on the intricate and complicated nature of American political history. You can stand up and say, yes, we should take down Confederate statues and remove the names of racists from things, not because we are erasing history, but because history is complicated, and because we should honor and highlight people who have worked for justice and equality and the ideas enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address (go read it) and Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail (go read that, too), that we remember history in books and museums, and we honor and commemorate people by naming things after them and putting up their statues, not the other way around. And you’ll be able to say that you don’t care if the names and statues being replaced align with our Party identification today or not, because the past was a whole different place, and your mind is large enough and open enough to hold those complicated facts and ideas all at once.

Most of all, you’ll know that Party politics are only one aspect of American history, and that even as the Parties jostled and fought for power and courted different interests in that pursuit, that throughout history one thread of justice and equality has run down through time, from the abolitionists of the pre-war era, to the work of emancipation and then Reconstruction, to those who fought Jim Crow and Segregation, into the Civil Rights movement of the 50s and 60s, on into the expansion of civil rights to include other minority groups, down to today, to the on-going fight for Black Lives and LGBTQ rights today. Want to stand in the tradition of Lincoln? Don’t worry about your party ID. Instead, remember that he was a voice for radical and scary changes to the social makeup in pursuit of, in his words, “a new birth of freedom”, and look for that same radical and scary fight today, remembering always that change is scary, but it’s also completely necessary if we are going to live up to our finest ideals as a nation and people.