Goddamn if I didn’t get into it last week on Facebook about Critical Race Theory with Hal Gordon, the former Reagan White House speechwriter and also speechwriter to General Colin Powell. I’ve been trying to avoid CRT altogether, just as I managed to not bore you by adding my two cents about “cancel culture” or the 1619 Project. I like to bore my readers on my terms, not on Tucker Carlson’s.
But I’ve known Hal for 30 years. He attended the first conference I ever put on. I’ve put him on stage to talk at many speechwriting conferences over that time. And what he has always talked about is history. One of the most erudite people I’ve ever met, Hal can recite long passages from history’s speeches from memory. In terms of raw historical knowledge, he’s spilled more on his tie than I ever drank.
Hal is a little too much of a Great Man Theory guy for the taste I’ve developed as a Studs Terkel acolyte, and a lot more concerned about Marxism than me and he does love the British royalty. Still, when it comes to American history and rhetoric, Hal is pretty compelling, at the lectern or in print.
So when he became increasingly hysterical about the 1619 Project and then Critical Race Theory over the last couple of months, I found it particularly troubling. In a typical post last week, he said that public school teachers “are brainwashing children to become the Red Guards of today’s Cultural Revolution.” And when I questioned that, he replied, “I’m convinced that if present trends continue, five years from now we will be living in the People’s State of America. The government, the academy, the media, the corporations, the military and even the churches have all been infected with the Critical Race Theory virus. It’s the Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
As my teenager would say: Wait, what?
Does Hal Gordon really equate Mao Zedong’s mad domination of China with Ta-Nehisi Coates’ influence on America?
Or is he just fighting fire with foaming at the mouth?
Depending on the answer, a guy known for historical perspective has either lost his, or is willfully throwing it away.
In either case—seems like a bad sign!
Because of course a common historical perspective is what we desperately need in America—and it’s what we’re all fighting about—so we can figure out what in hell to teach our kids. And even in the most constructive spirit, it’s a hard thing to do, to tell a nation’s children a fair version of centuries of truth, in blood and water and metal and flesh. Any nation’s children, let alone the rescue mutts that make up America’s children.
So how do you go about doing it?
I’ve been struggling with this one since my own daughter Scout was in first grade, 11 years ago. For Black History Month, she was assigned a profile of Jesse Owens. It was supposed to be a family project. So her mother and I taught her about Owens’ victory at the 1936 Olympics, at the famous displeasure of the man Scout kept referring to as “Rayolph Hitler.” We took her to Owens’ grave, on the South Side of Chicago. And over lunch at Army & Lou’s Soul Food restaurant, we tested her knowledge. Her take on white supremacy was totes adorbs. Her Black teacher’s aid cried at the video we made.
I was frustrated at the prospect of starting Scout’s education with a tidy, inspirational American myth and then gradually adding further complexities and come-downs, as she got older. At the time, I wrote here on Writing Boots: “I reckon we’ll wait until next Black History Month to tell Scout that Owens actually felt more egregiously snubbed by President Roosevelt, who ‘didn’t even send me a telegram.’ Third grade? That’ll be the time we talk about how Owens was unfairly stripped of his amateur status and had to scrape together a living hustling for black exploitation films, racing against horses and running from IRS agents.” Is that what history is going to continue to be in this country? Happy myth, spoiled?
So when Hal Gordon complained that history teaching is becoming political, that seemed like the least of the problems, and the most obvious:
Wasn’t teaching political, I wrote, when I grew up, “learning how George Washington could not tell a lie. It seemed like we spent three years on Helen Keller and four minutes on Harriet Tubman, let alone the Tulsa massacre, etc, etc. I agree that the re-‘centering’ of history teaching in America that the 1619 Project insists on is a difficult problem, intellectually and even logistically. I also agree that America, as much as it is an ‘idea,’ is also a ‘story.’ And if this particular nation can’t agree on a common narrative (or at least acknowledge the truth of parallel narratives), then it strains to find a common civic ideal to hold it together. I agree these are things to be concerned about. But WORKED ON, not screamed at or wished away in hopes we can go back the that old saw about the cherry tree. Come on, man. Dig deep.”
And those were going to be the last words of this post. Until, after a pause in our conversation, Hal wrote back: “I have been giving some sober thought to what you said about making a good-faith effort to teach American history in a way that gives young people ‘a properly profound sense of the complexity of this nation’s story.’ I think that that is a noble sentiment—one with which I can agree. In fact, I think I already have. When I read what you said, I found myself thinking about a post that I wrote exactly one year ago about a way to resolve the controversy over the Emancipation Memorial in Washington, D.C.”
In this post, Hal brings his old scholarly rigor to bear to come up with “Frederick Douglass’s Solution to the Emancipation Memorial Controversy.” Read it for yourself, but it strikes me as an absolutely perfect example of the kind of honest history revision—and narrative integration—that a thousand historians of all backgrounds and perspectives need to set about doing, the best way they know how.
And I told Hal so.
And Hal replied, “You and I certainly do agree that a society like ours needs a shared sense of history. I think that a shared sense of history is one of the few things that holds us together as a nation. If you think about it, we have no monarchy, no national church, and no common racial or ethnic identity. It is our commitment to our shared ideals and our common experience that makes us one. As I said in my post, what thrilled me about the proposals to modify the Emancipation Memorial is that if implemented, these proposals would give us a memorial that would go a long way towards ‘telling the whole truth’ and would be one in which all Americans could take pride. Surely that would be a helpful step in bringing us together.”
There is much for the helpful to do, as long as helpful, we are willing to consistently be.
The problem is that the fight isn’t about shared ideals and common experience. It is about defending the master (literally) narrative of history in service of sustaining existing social hierarchy. The better informed we are about our history, the better equipped we are to change the present. It is no coincidence that the fear-mongering around CRT comes in the wake of BLM and Trump’s loss. It is part and parcel of efforts to deny people of color full citizenship in our country..
The reality is that there is no such thing as shared history. You cannot expect people whose ancestors were colonized or ripped from their native lands to celebrate the “founding fathers.” The histories that people of color or women or queer folks take pride in are those in which they/we challenge the status quo and assert their/our humanity.
History is messy and complex and memorials often tell us more about the time they were created than the time they were meant to depict. The classroom has to be a place where we see complexity and search for accuracy (as much as that is possible with the study of the past). This means that we don’t stick with the story the Lincoln freed the enslaved. We teach that Lincoln had no intention of ending southern slavery upon entering the White House; he simply wanted to keep it out of the west. It means teaching all of the ways in which African Americans themselves brought about an end to slavery, including through violent resistance.
Until white people are willing to reckon with the privilege they still carry as a result of this history, there is absolutely no coming together as a nation. We have to do the work to to get to where BIPOC are with regards to the past, not the other way around.
David Murray says
I disagree with few of those words, Chelsea, and I thank you for engaging this. It’s just what I was after in laying into this issue, on which I know I am out of my own depth.
I have questions about some of what you said:
“The reality is that there is no such thing as shared history.” Okay, but what about parallel histories, as I described in my piece. While this was going on in Washington, that was going on in Virginia. One doesn’t have to wipe out the other; both were happening at once.
I do want to know what you think it would look like if this happened: “Until white people are willing to reckon with the privilege they still carry as a result of this history, there is absolutely no coming together as a nation.” What’s your vision of that, and what’s the likelihood it might ever take place?
And finally, what’s your vision for teaching American history to American children? Starting in kindergarten, “You live in a nation founded on genocide and rape, whose only heroes were those who threw off the chains of their oppressors?” Or something more complex, as you say, more messy, than that?
I ask these questions as honestly as I know how.
Hal Gordon says
I’m sure you meant to be fair, but my biggest objection to what you wrote is that you gave the impression that I’m some deranged right-winger who sees Reds under every bed. Let me repeat what I said on Facebook, and maybe this time you’ll read what I have to say a bit more closely:
First, I am by no means opposed to talking about race or discussing the painful facts of America’s racist past. But I do insist that the “facts” be factual. The 1619 Project, which Critical Race theory enthusiasts have added to the curriculum in 4500 schools nationwide, has been vetted by reputable historians and has been found to be riddled with errors, distortions and misrepresentations—most glaringly the claim that this country declared its independence from Britain because we were afraid that the British would abolish slavery.
Second, we can talk about the facts of our racist past without the Marxist indoctrination that is inseparable from Critical Race Theory. The CRP proponents always talk as if theirs is the only way to talk about race, and so opponents of CRT want to prohibit all discussion of race. Have you ever read any of the black scholars—Thomas Sowell for example—who are deeply and intelligently opposed to Critical Race Theory?
And there is no denying CRT’s Marxist bent. Marxism explains the world in terms of class struggle, CRT explains the world in terms of race struggle. The world is divided between only two groups—the oppressors and the oppressed.
CRT is openly anticapitalist. CRT guru Ibram X. Kendi says that “In order to truly be antiracist, you also have to truly be anti-capitalist.” He also favors reverse racism. He says that “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
This is not equality of opportunity, it is “equity”—that is, equality of result. It is the opposite of what Dr. Martin Luther King had in mind when he said that he wanted his children to be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” CRT stands Dr. King on his head.
CRT is covert totalitarianism. Ibram X. Kendi, who directs the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, has proposed the creation of a federal Department of Antiracism. This department would be independent of (i.e., unaccountable to) the elected branches of government, and would have the power to nullify, veto, or abolish any law at any level of government and curtail the speech of political leaders and others who are deemed insufficiently “antiracist.”
Heck, the CRT folks aren’t waiting for a Department of Antiracism to stifle free speech. CRT is usually presented before a captive audience—that is, in a classroom or a group of corporate employees. In these settings, when is it ever allowed to question CRT? When is it ever allowed to quote even black scholars who are opposed to CRT? Anyone who tries to do so is immediately told that he or she is exhibiting all the signs of “white fragility” or some other racist condition and is told to sit down and shut up.
It is not for nothing that immigrants from Communist Eastern Europe or Communist China are terrified of Critical Race Theory. They have seen it all before in the homelands they fled: the political show trials (“All White People Are Racist!”), the forced confessions (“Admit your White Privilege!”), the book burnings (“Decolonize your bookshelves!”) and so on.
A surprising amount of Critical Race Theory is actually harmful to black kids. Do black kids have trouble with math? Blame “systemic racism.” Say that requiring kids to show their work is “white supremacy.” Heck—deny that there is even such a thing as a “right” answer. This is happening.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world where ideology trumps the laws of mathematics. A world in which there are no right answers would be a world in which bridges and buildings collapse, planes fall out of the sky and checks bounce.
I could say a lot more, but I think I’ve made my point. There are good reasons to be opposed to the teaching of Critical Race Theory in our schools and those reasons have nothing to do with racism. Have I made myself clear the second time? I certainly hope so.
David Murray says
Hal, you tell me you’re not afraid of Reds or commies, but your essential critique of CRT is that it’s Marxist, and anti-capitalism.
Let me be clear: I AM NOT AT ALL WORRIED, in this decadent, greedy, materialistic, money-grabbing, stock market-worshiping society that we live in, about the encroachment of Marxism and the curtailment of capitalism.
I have so many worries. That is not one of them. Neither is the concern that pigs will fly. So if some CRT proponents make excessive claims like, “In order to be truly antiracist, you have to be truly anticapitalist,” I simply do not care. Am I really to be concerned that some CRT-toting diversity consultant is going to march into Chevron and convince everybody that profit is a dirty word?
As an old mentor of mine used to say, some people prefer an idealogical issue to a real one.
And I certainly don’t overreact in the other direction, and compare CRT being “added” to the curriculum of some schools to the top-down indoctrination of the Cultural Revolution. (For godsakes.)
But let’s focus on what we still have in common, rather than what we have never had in common. Let’s confront America’s racist past—with the help of legions of scholars of every background and political stripe, including the anti-CRT Black scholars you cite—without the Marxist baggage.
But first, we have to stop panicking over eventualities that aren’t within the realm of the real.
Parallel histories, yes. And students need to know a full history. But commonly, what we get when we seek out inclusive stories is the long standing narrative plus snippets of “diversity” stories. The parallel histories cannot include the top down narrative that we’ve been stuck with for so long. The story has to say: yes the founding fathers excitedly talked about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness but the only people they believed were capable of citizenship and had the right to it were other white men (usually property owners – the pursuit of happiness, after all, referred to money). They did this while defending their right to own other humans and take all legal standing away from their wives.
If white people came to terms with the real story of our nation’s history: my vision is that our current system changes radically. It is the future for which social justice activists are fighting. It’s breaking the school to prison pipeline (equitable funding for schools, ensuring every child has a safe home and food to eat, taking police out of schools, etc.), abolishing law enforcement (at the very least in its current format – policing is rooted in slave catching), full voting rights and an end to gerrymandering so that marginalized groups have true political representation, etc. It is a government that is committed to correcting the sins our past addressing the structural inequalities that are 100% rooted in the fact that our nation literally exists through colonization and enslavement. Regarding the question of likelihood, that’s tough. But we have to keep fighting as though it is possible, because the alternative is giving into our racist past.
Teaching children: Of course history education needs to be age appropriate. But it shouldn’t lie. You don’t teach them that Columbus discovered the Americas and you don’t have school kids touring missions as though they were a good outcome for Indigenous people (I went on so many of these fucking trips as a kid). You teach them that in trying to find a route to India he landed in the Americas instead and didn’t know where he was. That the Americas were populated by societies small and large (included a town that exceeded the size of London at the time), and that Europeans were bullies who felt they had a right to take this land as their own. You teach them about Indigenous cultures and African American culture – things that should be celebrated – and as they get older they learn the more complex stories.
It’s also worth considering here, though, that children of color (especially Black children) experience adultification in a way that white kids don’t. This is racial bias that treats children of color as being more mature than their age indicates (this, too, is a product of slavery). I won’t get into what this means in schools, etc. But one component of this is the fact that Black children have to grew up with the harsh truths of racism. Some light googling suggests that parents begin talking to these children about the risks of police interactions as early as 6, moving to more factual discussions of racial injustice at 10. Black children have to carry the burden of this knowledge at such a young age just to keep themselves safe (or least, to try to do so). To my mind, we have to take a hard look at what we think white children are capable of understanding and what future we are preparing them for.
Side note: MLK was heavily critical of capitalism so anyone from the right who tries to use him in any argument about structural inequality is using the past so selectively that their grasp on historical truths is questionable at best.
David Murray says
Chelsea, I’m afraid your analysis is just as radical as the kind of thing Hal worries about. I’m much more sympathetic to it, of course, but I do continue to worry about introducing kids to such a nearly unremittingly DARK view of this nation/world. Much to think about—and eventually much to write about, too. Thanks for weighing in.
What I’m saying is, people of color don’t have any choice but to live in that darkness (just think of how many Black children had to deal with the loss of loved ones as a result of police violence in the last year alone. You do have a choice. That is privilege. Until we surrender that privilege we are stuck in the past.
David Murray says
Chelsea, no one is going to surrender their privilege of happiness, to live in darkness. Remember the term “under-privileged”? Sounds hopelessly old-fashioned to us now that we only focus on the “over-privileged”? But working towards getting privilege for all is both more realistic and psychologically tenable than asking everyone else to “surrender” their privilege for their short stroke of life, a mission that reminds me of the blues player on the Simpsons who told Lisa that “You don’t play the blues to make yourself feel better, you play the blues to make other people feel worse.”
How do you sit easy with the “privilege of happiness” when it is contingent on the suffering of others? For many, happiness (or for me, contentment) comes in trying to raise the tide.
David Murray says
The answer is, I don’t sit easy with the privilege of happiness.
Aha! So you’re closer to my position than you think you are 😉
(And hugs to you, friend. These conversations just suck.)
David Murray says
Indeed—and hugs back—and more voices welcome here!