July 28, 2021

A Full Accounting

By Stephen Tuttle | June 5, 2021

So, what is critical race theory (CRT)? 

CRT is the notion that categorizing race into subgroups is an artificial construct designed specifically to oppress minorities, especially Black Americans, while maintaining control for an existing, mostly white, power structure, especially as it applies to the law.

In other words, we've intentionally created a socioeconomic system of haves and have-nots and a legal system to enforce it. 

The theory has gained significant attention, if only modest traction, during our current period of attention to racism and its attendant stench. Its essential tenets are open for rigorous differences of opinion and interpretations. Mostly an academic exercise, CRT isn't well suited to classroom instruction, which brings us to a satellite of CRT that was modified for the classroom.

“Project 1619,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning long-form journalism effort by Nikole Hannah-Jones and reporters and writers from the New York Times and New York Times Magazine. It attempts to reframe American history with a starting point not at the arrival of the pilgrims or the American Revolution but in the year 1619, when enslaved Africans first arrived in the Jamestown colony. It posits the theory the country's survival and success depended first on slavery and then upon the continued oppression of minorities. 

To be sure, there is ample evidence to suggest at least parts of both CRT and Project 1619 are true.

Our U.S. Constitution not only tolerates slavery but also puts a specific value on the enslaved — they each count as three-fifths of a person. Slaves were “owned” in all 13 of our original colonies, and ten of our first twelve presidents owned slaves. (John Adams and John Quincy Adams were the exceptions.) We didn't get around to making slavery unconstitutional for 90 years, and it took a Civil War to accomplish it. Then came the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow laws, race massacres in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Oklahoma, and more recently, mortgage redlining. There is evidence.

Now we have states passing voter suppression laws that appear to be targeted directly at minority voters, an effort that is simply the continuation of an unbroken chain of oppressive laws going back more than two centuries.  

It's also true that what most of us have been taught or read about our history was glossed over at best and fabricated at worst. Both CRT and Project 1619 fill in the gaps, but both have their own flaws.

They both engage in a kind of chronological conceit as if the United States was the birthplace of oppression and slavery. To understand why anyone thought this abomination of slavery was acceptable in the first place requires some historical context.

We have records of slavery going back nearly 9,000 years to Mesopotamia, long before Europeans got in on it. There has been no era since, including today, in which slavery did not exist somewhere. Those in power have consistently found ways to protect that power through various means of oppression. Sometimes that has included brute force and sometimes, here and elsewhere, it has been accomplished through laws and the courts. 

(One assumes critical gender theory is also inevitable as our treatment of women has been offensive, too. It took us 55 years after we ended slavery before we allowed women to vote.)

Focusing on the year 1619 is itself a bit of a regional bias. The first documented African slaves in North America arrived in what is now Florida with the Lucas Vazquez de  Allyon expedition of 1526. And both CRT and Project 1619 conveniently ignore the rich history of the Western Hemisphere that included conquerors, enslavement, and oppression aplenty long before Europeans arrived here. 

If we're going to begin teaching the truth about us, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, we're going to have to start with what was here before we showed up. That would make Charles C. Mann's excellent book “1491” mandatory reading. It tells the story of all who came before us and what happened to them as we arrived.

The evil twins of oppression and slavery didn't start with us, but we embraced both at our founding. Our democratic republic was a grand idea that came with huge, built-in flaws consistent with the times in which we became a nation. Ignoring those ugliest parts of our history does a disservice to those in school and everyone else interested in our history.

But the progress made and the promises still to be fulfilled must also be part of that story. We are getting closer to becoming an ideal that works for everyone, but the progress is ever so slow. And the history we teach must include both the darkness and the light. We need a full accounting of who we were, an honest discussion of what we are now, and a serious conversation about what we hope to be.


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