A Black effigy hangs behind a group of white Mansfield, TX residents gathered to protest desegration in 1956. Source: About the Project · The Crisis at Mansfield (omeka.net)
Recently, a Fort Worth Independent School District school board meeting devolved into a debate over critical race theory (CRT) during public comments – even though CRT could be found nowhere on the board agenda, and CRT, a worldview which examines systemic racism in America, is not named in the curriculum taught in Fort Worth public schools, which are 85% Hispanic and Black. A cadre of mostly white, mostly conservative, and mostly Christian opponents – many of whom said their children don’t go to public schools because of fears of exposure to ideas like CRT – spoke against teaching children about systemic racism. As they spoke, I couldn’t help but hear their fear that CRT will endanger their freedom. In reality, though, learning about and grappling with America’s past and current racism is the only thing that will set our country free from the stranglehold of racism.
This school board meeting has been on my mind as I read Caste, Isabel Wilkerson’s unflinching examination of the American race-based caste system. Recently, I completed a chapter titled “The Evil of Silence”, which discusses how German townspeople living near concentration camps swept away the ashes that floated away from the crematoria and onto their doorsteps. Wilkerson compares their dissociation to the nonchalant way well-dressed men, women, and children in the United States made picnics out of the public torture and murder of Black people, even taking pieces of their charred bodies as souvenirs.
I thought, “This is what those people in the school board meeting are afraid of.” These stories complicate the ones we tell about our society’s forbears, and therefore about ourselves.
The white people who made souvenirs of Black men’s severed ears were, after all, people’s great-grandfathers. The white people who jeered at and threatened to murder little Black children integrating schools became people’s grandmothers, parents, aunts, uncles, and godparents. The white people we read about from the past were actual people who went home to families, with whom they may very well have been kind and affectionate. Even as they sent postcards to loved ones of themselves standing in front of a lynched Black man’s body. Even as they said, “Good riddance” when Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated. Even as they wondered why Black people were making such a fuss about equal rights while they barred Black people from neighborhoods, loans, swimming pools, jobs, land ownership, voting rights, and due process.
I could understand not wanting to know about this history. It would be like finding out that your grandfather, the one who bounced you on his knee and carefully covered your boo-boos with a Band-Aid, was also an ax murderer. It would be disturbing to find out that your forbears went to public lynchings of innocent people as a pastime, or placed Japanese Americans into internment camps for the supposed crime of having Japanese ancestry. It is the way our children may eventually feel about how we, societally, remain largely impassive about gaping systemic inequity and the treatment of asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexican border.
But we must remember that we cannot protect the innocence of childhood forever. At some point, children realize adults aren’t perfect, whether we teach them this explicitly or not.
We must also remember that Black children have long borne the painful truth. We are the ones who bear witness to the Black lives and dreams lost to systemic racism. We, as Black children and teenagers and adults, have had to process this history, often alone or with our family members, and often despite receiving oversimplified, whitewashed versions of history in school.
We fill in the gaps with family stories, self-study, or post-high school classes. We get therapy or compare notes about family members who had to make speedy departures to avoid a lynching, about learning how to assert ourselves in a society that views us as threats, about the collective weight of macroaggressions and microaggressions and the trauma they have been proven to cause. We do the work every day. It’s time for white people in America to do the same.
Opponents of CRT worry that learning about systemic racism will make white children feel guilty about events for which they aren’t directly responsible. Many of the opponents in the Fort Worth school board meeting spoke of this fear – all while espousing understandings of Christianity that teach children they have been sinful since birth – so sinful that God created a perfect being and then sacrificed Him for their sins. They decorate church nurseries with animals from Noah’s ark, a story about a world so awful that God had to kill nearly everyone in it and start all over again. And these churches teach about the story of Jonah and the whale, which tells of a nation that is spared total destruction only when it acknowledges and repents of its collective sin.
If children of CRT opponents can hear and understand stories as nuanced and violent as these, surely they also have the capacity to hear the history of our country and understand the need for acknowledging and repenting of its past and present.
It is this “present” that is so often a sticking point for CRT critics. Everyone wants equality, it seems, but few want to experience the discomfort necessary to achieve it. That discomfort includes acknowledging that racism exists in the present. After all, some white people are still reaping the financial benefits of slavery, the G.I. Bill, unfair distribution of resources during de jure and de facto segregation, and access to college and white-collar careers. Isn’t it logical that Black people would still be feeling the negative effects of slavery, and the generational wealth lost to redlining, property destruction led by racist mobs and allowed by law enforcement, and figurative and literal lack of access? I mean, are we really debating whether systemic racism exists during a time when Black people are far more likely than whites to be arrested for drug crimes despite similar rates of usage and selling, and just this week an international water sports organization said, essentially, that Black hair is not natural in form?
Learning about our country’s very real systemic racism has given me greater clarity of the world around me. It has not, as CRT opponents fear, made me into a victim. I go to work, I go to church, I send my children to school, I vote, I pay my taxes. I have not, as far as I can tell, been transformed into a puddle of helplessness. What understanding systemic racism has done, is help validate my observations. As a Black person often in majority white contexts, I find myself wondering if I can believe my own eyes and ears sometimes – whether a slight, offhand comment, or pattern of exclusion meant what I think it meant. Reading books like Caste affirms that my observations are not only real, but also borne out by research.
Understanding systemic racism also explains a lot about my family tree. It explains why my maternal grandfather and his sister, who both served in the military, did not go to college under the G.I. Bill, but instead worked in factories after the war. It explains why so many of my mother’s family members left the South for the North in search of a better life and greater physical safety. It explains why, even when I was a little girl, my family didn’t like driving at night in certain parts of the South. These realities are part of American history, too.
But the thought of CRT threatens the mythos of the American story, an overly simplistic tale of good Americans versus the evil, freedom-hating British monarchy. America was a country founded on freedom, the story goes (this part of the story often leaves out that slavery was codified in the Constitution). The story continues: America had a brief time where the evil South had slaves, then the North fought a war and fixed that, and then the South had Jim Crow, and then Martin Luther King, Jr. fixed that, and then all the problems around racism basically went away.
Instead, CRT says the Founding Fathers traded one problematic system of governance for another, one that became obsessed with categorizing people according to race and then keeping people firmly entrenched within those categories. CRT says white wealth in both the South and North was built on the backs of enslaved Africans and African Americans. And CRT says that wealth continues to be controlled and passed down by white descendants in the forms of property, power, and inherited wealth – all of which Black people have historically been almost entirely excluded from.
Racism is a costly enterprise for Americans as a whole – not just for the targets of racist policy. Most of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers who died in the Civil War were white, we’ve all paid for reparations to interned Japanese Americans and their descendants, and we continue to pay the environmental cost of ignoring the wisdom and practices of the Indigenous people who knew this land before it was stolen and re-named the United States.
While diversity and inclusion have been shown to produce collective social and economic benefits, racism has cost the U.S. trillions of dollars, according to economist Heather McGhee. For example, she notes, the racist practice of redlining that barred Black people from loans and homeownership led to predatory lending practices that began in the Black community and spread to white communities. This lending, as we know now, led to the devastating Great Recession.
Lying to ourselves and shielding our children from these truths will keep us bound to practices that harm us all – white, Black, Brown, citizens and undocumented alike.
But the truth, as the saying goes, will set us free. It’s time we start telling it.