June 22, 2021 - 9:01 pm
As a college professor who has studied or taught history for more than 20 years, I must respond to Jim Graham’s June 16 letter to the editor. He claims that anti-critical race theory legislation is meant to “stifle any discussions of race and its impact” on U.S. history. This seems to be the new liberal talking point about the pushback to critical race theory as an effort to make Republicans look white and reactionary. But it is categorically false.
When I teach American history, we start with Native American history, and our first discussion question regards the villainy of Columbus over slavery, widespread death and disruption of native cultures. I offer a counterpoint and remind my students that there is more to history than judging the past based on the present. But we start with a discussion of race and never really stop.
The two semester American history courses cover the triangle trade, three-fifths compromise, plantation system, KKK terrorism, Jim Crow, migrant labor, redlining and much more — all in contrast to “stifling discussions of race,” as Mr. Graham contends. Matters of race, along with sexuality and class are central features of the college course. I do my best to offer counterpoints, insights into the Constitution and natural rights and a robust discussion of military history (my specialty) in pursuit of a well-rounded education for my students. But it feels like a losing effort. This feeling is solidified when the term papers are due, as they are exclusively about the holy trinity of new academia (race, class and sexuality).
If anything is stifled, it is a robust discussion of the Constitution (beyond the three fifths compromise) and an appreciation of how amazing America is despite its flaws. As I try to explain to my students, America has diseases, but it contains the cure as well. For example, early abolitionists such as the Grimke sisters showed that America’s freedom of speech and religious heritage — and its commitment to ideals such as all human beings are entitled to liberty — created a climate that changed moral attitudes in America and eventually ended abhorrent practices such as slavery. White people may have established “systems of power” — as critical race theory contends — but many white people, propelled by their sense of faith and compassion, fought those systems to more fully realize the promise of America to every racial, ethnic and social class.
The anti-CRT legislation is a good first step in reclaiming a balanced and educated view of history that saves it from a narrow focus of modern political concerns.