CLEVELAND — We often hear people say that we should have more serious conversations about race.
There are three fraught key words in that sentence:
First – we need to have more conversations about race? Sometimes, it seems that’s all we talk about, that everything is seen through a racial filter.
But, second – even if it’s true that we talk about race all the time, it might not be true that we are having many serious conversations about it.
Because, third – we rarely have conversations about race. People don’t talk with each other on the subject often enough. They talk at each other.
They don’t make a point or ask a question, and then wait for the other person to respond. They shout their points of view, simultaneously, pressing their opinions rather than trying to understand. And any insight that might have been lurking in the salvos of words gets overwhelmed by opposing accusations of woke rationalizations and racist dog whistles.
Hard to have any serious conversations that way, much less more of them.
That unpleasant reality was on full display in the off-year election season just past – most prominently in the Virginia gubernatorial race, but generally just about everywhere across the 50 states where there was an election for a local school board member.
This was the year of CRT – critical race theory. And if there were serious, respectful conversations about it that strove for understanding and against separating black from white, liberal from conservative – I did not witness them.
Entire books have been written about CRT and all its ramifications, but boiling it down into a few words: It is a school of thought holding that racism is endemic in U.S. culture, politics, economics and law, resulting in the exploitation of people of color by whites, which generally marks Whites as oppressors and Blacks as victims.
The debate in the Virginia election, and elections in towns and villages around the country, centered on whether CRT should be discussed and taught in elementary and secondary schools.
But it was the wrong debate. It featured a misused and misunderstood label that has come to be a catch-all term for everything conservatives don’t like about liberal ideas regarding our racial divide. Instead, CRT is by definition a theory reserved for college-level discussion, and is not a formal part of high school or elementary curricula.
That does not, however, mean that conservatives are wrong to be concerned about what might be happening in their children’s schools.
The argument really has devolved into two opposing points of view: On the one hand, we should be encouraging our teachers and students to examine our country’s history and confront our misdeeds as well as our triumphs, particularly when it comes to race. And on the other, labeling our children as either oppressors or victims based on the color of their skin is wrong-headed and damaging to all, and should not be inflicted on the developing minds of our young people in their schools.
They are both valid opinions, as far as they go. And in fact, they should not be mutually exclusive.
Unfortunately, that has come to be the case, and it boils down to one word:
School board members can assure people all day long that CRT isn’t taught in their schools, and we should take them at their word. But quite simply, parents who express concern about what they think of as CRT are really saying that they don’t trust that teachers will keep their personal politics – especially new and extreme reframing of race relations – out of the classroom. Parents don’t like the possibility of teachers putting their own spin on the country’s history.
The past year’s COVID-induced Zoom class time and Facebook chatter gave parents a front-row seat in their children’s classrooms for the first time. And a lot of them didn’t like that they saw and heard.
Teachers have a complicated and challenging job, and obviously, they don’t all hew to the liberal playbook. But if you don’t believe that our educators are mostly liberal, check out which candidates the teachers unions overwhelmingly favor year after year with their money and support.
Our public schools might not be teaching CRT – but many schools have embraced The 1619 Project, The New York Times’ suspect history of U.S. race relations positing that the country’s true founding and legacy was established not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first slave ship landed in Port Comfort, Virginia.
“Out of slavery — and the anti-Black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,” wrote Times Sunday Magazine editor Jack Silverstein in 2019 in supporting the project, as quoted by Times columnist Bret Stephens last year.
Not so fast, wrote Stephens: “Nearly everything? What about, say, the ideas contained by the First Amendment? Or the spirit of openness that brought millions of immigrants through places like Ellis Island? Or the enlightened worldview of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin airlift? Or the spirit of scientific genius and discovery exemplified by the polio vaccine and the moon landing?”
It’s hard to blame conservative parents for wondering which of those tacks would be taken in the classroom by teachers who enthusiastically embrace The 1619 Project. Can they trust an apolitical approach from teachers who are inundated with anti-bias training that includes, among much else, Robin DiAngelo’s runaway best-seller “White Fragility,” which insists that even the most liberal among us are racists, and the ideas of activist Ibram X. Kendi, who advocates a federally funded “Department of Anti-Racism” that would monitor and approve state, local and federal policies for racial bias or inequity?
The debate is not over whether students should be exposed to the full range of our history – good and bad, black and white, comfortable and uncomfortable. Most parents have no objection to that. What many fear is the bias in the presentation that students might get in the classroom, assigning oppression and victimhood to racial groups.
That brings us back to trust, which has to be earned, and can easily be lost.
Critical race theory has become a handy three-word label for all the above concerns. The parents who are objecting to it, and who want school boards to ban it, are really saying that they no longer trust the people who are in charge of educating their children, and once that’s lost, it’s hard to get back.
Perhaps more serious conversations about race would be a start.
Ted Diadiun is a member of the editorial board of cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. Reach him at: firstname.lastname@example.org