November 4, 2021

Between CRT & me

 If I may, I'd like to share some brief reflections on the endurance of racism in US society, and the absolute need to teach critical histories of that racism, from the perspective of a white male American, born in the midwest, who now teaches history in an Africana Studies department. Perhaps these limited reflections will offer some insight into parents who wish to understand the meaning of the calls to "ban" the teaching of critical race theory.

I was raised in an evangelical Christian cult. Through the good graces of some earthly mentors, I was delivered from the stultifying anti-intellectual foolishness of that group, through an opportunity to work for Habitat for Humanity in Farrell-Sherard, MS, two small towns near the levee in Coahoma County, MS. What I learned about American racism there, forever changed the course of my life. The images I saw and experiences I had in Mississippi brought me to the ineluctable conclusion that racism was an inextricable part of US history and an enduring pattern in US society, and that I had to find a way to address the conditions that helped spawn it, to play my small part in a human drama of struggle against the immoral forces of racial domination and supremacy that pre-dated me by centuries.

I thought these grandiose thoughts with all the moral passion of the eighteen-years-young man I was. I made up my mind to apprentice myself to and learn from, as many elders from the black freedom movement as I could find. At the time, New Covenant Missionary Baptist Church gave me a new reference orientation on Christianity. I learned about grassroots organizing from my supervisor Dorothy Jenkin's many lessons, while meeting many elders from the Mississippi wing of the movement (such as my Delta Service Corps supervisor, Euvester Simpson). Among and through these elders, I met committed whites of an earlier generation who thought as I did.
But in spite of these noble "accomplices" like Bob Zellner, Heather Booth and others, it was hard to ignore one significant and depressing dynamic that dwarfed their important work: most of the earlier generations of US whites were laughably, criminally ignorant of black history and black 'forms of life' in a way unlike the knowledge blacks had of whites. A great many American whites, I observed as a young man, seemed to have difficulty openly and honestly communicating with blacks without layers of guilt, condescension, or contempt. They often mistook pity for blacks as compassion. Some were only capable of treating black people as individuals if blacks conformed to their rigid expectations.
These observations, born from my sociological scrutiny of the awkward habits of interracial socializing in the US, fired a passion in me, to try to develop forms of speaking and communicating across these gaps, and to help more of my US 'tribe' become conscious of how the ideologies of anti-black racism, in addition to their other human costs, have socially damaged some white Americans to a shocking degree.
This brings me to critical race theory. When I see US politicians today ranting and raving against CRT, I cannot help but think about where they grew up, who they grew up with. Many were socialized into all white communities and never developed the necessary tools to deal with the cultural pluralism of their own society. Many powerful leaders in US history have chosen to remain behind this 'veil', a studied posture of innocence about racism which often conceals a basic attitude of domination. Many of their much less powerful white constituents have become proud of this ignorance, wielding it as form of identity politics and taking refuge in anxious patriotism to shield themselves from dealing with the corrosive effects of US racism on their own psyche. When I think of the relevance of CRT, I think of efforts over the past two centuries to change this dynamic in the US. As I sit here over 20 years later, I think of Derrick Bell's words, "If I could get that message [what racism has done to US whites] across, you could carry me away."
We can debate the effectiveness of anti-racism initiatives, observe that it has been co-opted by liberals, and criticize those who use it as an entrepreneurial venture. Racial reductionism and 'racecraft' (belief in race as a hidden ontology) are indeed as rife as ever on both sides of the US divide. But critical race theory didn't 'cause' that divide, nor does critical race theory artificially keep open a wound that otherwise would have healed, as many of its critics imply. Rather the critics, along with a great many white Americans, would simply prefer to believe the wound doesn't exist anymore, or that it can be closed with well-intentioned gestures of friendship. A more thorough recipe for spiritual rot would be hard to find than this particular brand of "know-nothing-ism."


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