A much-published Episcopal clergyman visited with a congregation in his area. He asked them if they thought the Ten Commandments continued to be important today. They strongly agreed. He then asked if anyone could recite them. Nobody could. The entire assembly working together could barely complete the list.
We are often deeply committed to opinions about things we cannot even define. Right now, a lot of ink is being spilled about critical race theory. Its media allies consider it thoughtful, provocative, well-reasoned, and long overdue. Its detractors say it is unfair, biased, dishonest, and dangerous. Let’s start with building a definition of the term word by word.
“Theory” is best understood in contrast to “practice.” Theoreticians use the methods that have been agreed upon by scholars in their fields to explain why things are the way they are. They must put aside preconceived thoughts of taking action to solve problems, and be willing to go wherever the evidence takes them. Their present theories may give way to later theories that do a better job of explaining what can be observed. For example, we have had several theories about what an atom is. Each successive one does a better job of explaining how atoms behave.
“Critical theory” is the brain-child of German sociologists from the early 1930s. They, too, were committed to doing research using tried-and-true scholarly methods. The difference is that, from the very beginning of their work, critical theorists were interested in what action steps their data might be suggesting to improve society. This was understandable since Germany was then in a virtual civil war of street fighting under the weak government of the Weimar Republic. Inflation was out of control and the possibility of a totalitarian regime was near. The Frankfurt School of thinkers leaned strongly on the writings of Karl Marx, but action-oriented research need not be Marxist.
“Critical race theory” is the critical theory approach applied to issues of race. It starts, as do all systems of thought, with some first principles. Key among them is that race is not a biological fact but a social construct created to facilitate the domination of certain elements in society over others.
To illustrate this somewhat counterintuitive idea, let’s look at baseball. Jackie Robinson is usually credited with being the first Black player in the major leagues. But “blackness” was a matter of some flexibility well before that, if you could throw a good curveball. In 1910, the Cincinnati Reds wanted two highly regarded Cuban pitchers, Rafael Alemeida and Armando Marsans. They were allowed to play only when they produced a letter certifying they were white. All went well for a few seasons and then they asked for a raise. That was when the team officials told them that they had hit their pay ceiling regardless of performance, because they were now considered Black.
Let’s go to the center of the current storm. The ongoing 1619 Project was initiated by the New York Times Magazine in 2019, the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. Its stated purpose is to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.” While the project includes a lecture series at the Smithsonian Institution, a podcast, and photo displays, the centerpiece is a series of long-form essays on the Black experience in America. These are difficult to read. The tone is as unforgiving as was that experience itself. Any single essay leaves one drained, angry, and perhaps with a bit more understanding about some of the rage-filled behavior we witnessed on network news last summer.
Opponents have questioned the truth of the history retold in these essays. The reader is in no position to evaluate that on a fact-by-fact basis. But the New York Times, while it has certainly made some errors of fact over its 170-year history, enjoys the highest levels of worldwide reputation for professional standards and factual accuracy. They would certainly have expected their media opposition and like-minded think tanks to devote major resources to trying to find errors that might discredit the project. They would have undoubtedly triple-checked everything before publication.
Still every essay ever written is a blend of facts and interpretation. Some respected academic historians have questioned some of what is presented in this project, especially in the way facts are used. The project is accused of being “agenda-driven,” but that is the definition of what critical theory is. The question is not “Are they trying to convince me to make their cause into my cause?,” but “Did they succeed in doing so using fact and reason?”
The stakes are higher because the project has a high school curriculum. The teaching of “social studies” has always been partially about transferring a national mythology to the young in ways that will encourage pride and patriotism. Anyone who has read American history as an adult knows the schools don’t just oversimplify. By highly selective inclusion and omission, sometimes they downright fib. So the question is not just what the truth is, but how much truth should be shared with our students and at what level. The 1619 Project authors would answer “Much more than we have in the past, more directly, and earlier.” After checking out some of these essays, you might well agree they have a point.
Dr. Richard Rose is the program director for instructional design and technology at West Texas A&M University. The comments here represent his own opinions and not those of WTAMU.
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