You want to know what the whole brouhaha about critical race theory is about? It's about people not wanting their children taught stuff they're not proud of. They're not proud of racism. It's nasty. It's not "who we are," to use a common political phraseology. Besides, it's behind us. We dealt with that part of our history. Let's move on!
Sure, let's move on to studying the founding fathers, who we are proud of, but heaven forbid we should mention their messy aspects, like the fact that a bunch of them owned slaves. Let's move on to teaching about the wars we won, rather than those we lost. Let's move on to teaching about the Great Expansion West as our country grew from 13 colonies to encompass a continent, but let's leave out the genocide of the people who were already living here and the inconvenient truth that it was at least in part the debates over the expansion of slavery into the territories that ultimately led to the secession of the South, the collapse of American democracy and the Civil War.
It's said that parents in hotspots like Sugar Land, Texas, and Loudoun County, Virginia don't want their children to be made to feel uncomfortable because they are white. Aside from the fact that discomfort is a rather odd criterion for what to teach or not teach children, I cannot recall a single instance during the 12 years I attended public schools of anyone being worried whether or not the Black kids I went to school with felt uncomfortable attending majority-white schools.
But let's talk about pride for a moment. I'm proud to be a descendant of Thomas Jefferson. That doesn't mean I have to be proud of the fact that along with the Declaration of Independence, he laid out in his only book, "Notes on the State of Virginia," what you might call the founding ideology behind white supremacy: Blacks were inherently inferior to whites and were incapable of being educated, and thus it was proper that they remain chattel owned by whites. Nor am I proud of the fact that over his lifetime, Jefferson owned more than 600 human beings and upon his death freed only those with the last name Hemings, among whom were the children he had fathered with his slave, Sally.
That's the thing about pride. It belongs to you, so you get to pick and choose what you're proud of. I remember when it was considered extraordinary that the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, would have a hit record with "Say it Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud." Released in 1968, that just wasn't something you heard Black people telling the world, and yet here was James Brown singing these lyrics:
Now we demand a chance to do things for ourselves
We're tired of beatin' our head against the wall
And workin' for someone else
We're people, we're just like the birds and the bees
We'd rather die on our feet
Than be livin' on our knees
Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud!
Same with the phrase, "Gay Pride." In the summer of 1969 when those words rang out from the crowd outside the Stonewall Inn after a police bust, it was extraordinary to hear it said out loud in a public place, much less during what amounted to a police riot against the people saying it. By a quirk of fate, I was there the night the Stonewall was busted. I wrote the Village Voice cover story on the two days of demonstrations that followed. The words "Gay Pride" and "Gay Power" were scrawled on the boarded-up windows of the Stonewall. Until that moment, being gay was hardly a source of pride. It would not be until 1987 that homosexuality was officially removed from the DSM, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders," and it took many more years for sex acts between adults of the same gender to be decriminalized. Proud of being a criminal and having a mental illness? It was instead the reason many gay and lesbian people chose to stay in the closet and hide their sexual identity.
It's not just an irony but a crime that Black pride and gay pride are what lie behind much of the hysteria about "critical race theory," especially in the red states where the madness over transgender bathrooms and racial history really broken out. The attitude among so many of those who scream threats at school board meetings and demonstrate outside the homes of school principals and superintendents seems to be that gays and Blacks were OK — back when they weren't proud of who they are. Protesting parents seem to long for a time when "they" weren't in your face with ridiculous demands like teaching the subject of slavery in history classrooms and allowing LGBT students to form pride clubs and hold hands in the hallways. The arguments over critical race theory reflect a desire among certain parents for all that icky stuff to just go away. Let's get back to cheering at football games and decorating for prom, they seem to say.
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Here's just one problem with that. In places like Sugar Land, Texas, those football games are being played on land that was deeded to homesteaders in the 1820s and '30s by Stephen F. Austin from a land grant of more than 97,000 acres he received from Mexico as a deal for cotton and sugar plantations. If settlers brought one slave with them, they received 80 acres for a homestead. With two slaves they got 160 acres, and so on. For his role in helping to settle the territory of Texas and for leading the Texas revolution against Mexico, which opposed slavery, the state capital was named after him.
Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing counties in the country, was similarly farmed by slave-owners. Ruth Basil, who worked for my grandparents on their Loudoun County farm in the early 1950s, is the great-granddaughter of slaves and was raised in a log cabin built by her great-grandparents, after they won their freedom in 1865, on land that was sold to them by the man who had owned them. Ruth was raised in that log cabin, from which she walked to school each day along the dirt roads that formed the boundaries of the farm where her great grandparents were slaves. She was frequently passed on her way to school by yellow school buses that carried white children to the all-white schools they attended. Ruth and her Black classmates studied from used schoolbooks that had been passed down to the segregated schools she attended. Loudoun County was part of Virginia's program of "massive resistance" against integration after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, and its schools would remain segregated, along with most the others in the state, until the mid-1960s.
Massive resistance to school integration in Virginia has morphed into massive resistance against critical race theory and was a leading factor in the contest for the Virginia governorship, won by Republican Glenn Younkin over Democrat Terry McAuliffe earlier this month. The state that used to hide its Black students in inadequately financed, poorly supplied and out of the way all-Black schools is now trying to hide the critical race facts of those years from its students.
Here is a new "note on the state of Virginia": Opposition to critical race theory won't save you from the ugly truths about white supremacy.
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