By now, you might have heard of an obscure branch of legal theory that got its start forty years ago at Harvard Law School. It's known as Critical Race Theory and is all about unpacking the social and cultural obstacles to a true post-racial society–even after the laws themselves might have changed (Civil Rights Act of 1964, etc).
Odds are if you've been hearing of it lately, it's not from legal scholars. It's been polarized as the latest flash point in the culture wars. And in that weaponization, we're missing creative ways to tell better stories together. (See How a Conservative Activist Invented the Conflict Over Critical Race Theory)
Why It Matters
The recent Critical Race Theory debate basically hinges between a desire to teach a more true but more tragic version of the past, or continue to tell a more idealistic and more heroic story of our great beginnings.
I care about this for two reasons:
One–just wrote a book that points out how identity politics is a fatal distraction from our shared challenges. (Recapture the Rapture)
It's so critical because ID Politics are flawed at a structural level. It's just math. If a literal world of hurt is coming all of our way but we refuse to cooperate because of our tribal IOUs––those backlogged grievances will seem petty in hindsight." is the bumper sticker of this notion.
Two–US history was my concentration in grad school and I ended up teaching it to high school and college students for over a decade. And while nobody ever cared too much about the calculus and chemistry curricula, everybody had a thought about what books we should read in English class and what stories we teach in History. Because those are the dual engines of culture, it's how we shape who we are and who our kids turn out to be, it's always been a knife fight.
So in the racial reckoning of our time, many folks are demanding that we wrestle with the perpetual imbalances of our past, the gap between aspirational democracy and the legacy of conquest––genocide and slavery.
In this argument, both sides are right about some things and wrong about others.
Taking the best of both offers a powerful and positive way forward.
Let's get cracking:
How to Take the Best of Both Sides
Thing One: Critiquing Our Own Narrative
We absolutely should get past the Schoolhouse Rock cartoon version of US History, filled with cherry trees, log cabins and minutemen. It was mostly made up, edited and re-edited over time to highlight some things and leave many others in the dark.
It's time to publicly reckon with slavery, indian wars, labor riots, world wars, the Tragedy of the Commons and all the rest, beyond the press clippings and into the nitty gritty realities of nation states, markets and empires.
This isn't in any way new. History as an academic discipline has been critiquing its own narratives for decades. It's only the Whig, AKA Traditionalist interpretation (as embodied by Schoolhouse Rock and a dismaying number of Republican congresspeople these days) that insists on that old-skool heroic and sanitized version of the national story.
It's a past that's past its sell-by date and in dire need of a mainstream update.
In contrast to the traditional Whigs, Progressive interpretations look at race, class, gender, environment, economics and law and cast a clear-eyed and data driven approach to unpacking our cooperative, competitive and conflicting pasts. There's tons of hard truths to accept, but also an even more profound accounting of our shared persistence and move towards a better union.
It's fascinating, messy, complex, surprising and ambiguous––in other words, a much more interesting and human story. Nothing is neat or tidy, or submits to definitive, singular causes.
Whigs might be afraid that this argument is a binary either/or, either we're heroic revolutionaries heirs to the greatest republic ever created, or we're bloodthirsty colonizers who are responsible for much of what's wrong with the world (so they have to resist it for all they're worth). But there's a third way, that takes both traditional and progressive truths into account.
Yale historian, Edmund Morgan wrote in his classic American Slavery, American Freedom that the United States was only able to conduct the fragile democratic experiment that all men might be created equal, if it, paradoxically, identified some sub-population to be unequal at first. Same with the only other two civilizations to try this wild idea, the Greeks and the Romans. Morgan argued that slavery, rather than being a bug in the code of primitive democracy, was a tragic but co-arising feature.
If we concluded those ideas were bankrupt just because we haven't fully realized them yet, it would risk wasting that painful legacy. The only way to redeem that blood-price of denying some people their very humanity, is to do our level best to live up to the premise and the promise of those founding ideals–for everyone as we keep expanding the Infinite Game.
Abe Lincoln at Gettysburg, MLK in Washington––if like Martin, we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is writing rubber checks, if like Abraham we continue to yearn towards our better angels, we can tell a story that is hopeful while also fully acknowledging the countless places we've fallen short. It can galvanize us to double down on the whole project with a more mature appreciation of how hard and delicate it's turning out to be.
Thing Two: Where the Backlash Has a Point
But Thing Two, and where the conservative backlash of CRT "brainwashing our kids" or "making them feel guilty just for being white" actually has a point.
The moment we move from taking a clear-eyed look into our past, and start insisting that one group of people can define and even insist what other unique individuals believes in the present we've crossed the Rubicon of non-violent communication.
The Flaws of Implicit Bias Tests
And FWIW, the Harvard Implicit Bias Test, which is to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training what muscle testing used to be for allergies, is badly flawed. It's been used to "prove" that almost everyone is racially biased, even and especially when they don't think they are, based on reaction times in word-find tests.
In reality it's become the thin end of the wedge for injecting white fragility and anti-racism as a new orthodoxy. But that's going to backfire badly and create conditions for an ethno-nationalist reaction. As Steve Bannon recently gloated "CRT backlash is like the Tea Party on steroids!"
(see Jesse Singal's The Quick Fix: Why Fad Psychology Can't Cure Our Social Ills along with this compilation of Reversals in Psychology for a sobering review of replication crises, including the Implicit Bias Test)
To assume that someone can name and call out your inner drivers and motivations, and those diagnostics supercede your own self inquiry and reporting, violates basic tenets of classroom ethics and communication theory. The central premise of a humanist learning environment (either formal or social), is that we co-create meaning together by sharing perspectives, evidence, assumptions, emotions, until we co-create a good-faith shared reality.
It sounds easier than it usually is.
But that ideal, that we show up extending benefit of the doubt, to commit to the least shaky form of mutuality we can hammer out together––that's foundational to civic (and civil) discourse.
A Way Forward: Tragically Flawed and Relentlessly Optimistic
So a way forward would be to encourage the Traditionalist Whigs to lean into real, rigorous, critical history and the inevitable accounting it requires of our past, and to encourage social justice activists to back off a few notches on the racialized analysis in the present, where every historical injustice (largely true) becomes a cudgel to bludgeon real-time conversation (which has to be up for careful debate).
If we can balance the Agony and the Ecstasy of the American Experiment, and not get lost in low-level culture war bickering, we can stick this landing and reinvigorate democracy. We'll need to keep our eyes on the crux of a challenging meta-crisis, while keeping our eyes on the Prize, of a more perfect union.
Which one wins out in the end? Hard to say. I am honestly baffled and a little confused about the weird intertwining of the beautiful ideals of "all men and women created equal" and the undeniable shittiness of power, politics and pressing problems.
If you or your people have been on the sharp end of this dialogue for a few centuries, you wouldn't be wrong to weight bare knuckles history a little more heavily than the idealized philosophies that sprung from it.
But if we're going to insist that all narratives are constructs, then let's at least make up a good one going forward.
And a good one to start with is our great great grandparents were tragically flawed but relentlessly optimistic, and so are we. We're forever losing the plot and finding it, straying from the path and returning to it, defying each other and relying on each other.
Not in a "let's meet in the middle" kumbaya kind of way, but in a hammer and tongs thrash it the fuck out forever kind of way. Agonistic liberalism. The absolute worst form of governance invented, except for all the others.
As the old song goes...
We're all confused, what's to lose?
You can call this all the United States Blues.
Wave that flag, wave it wide and high.
Summertime done, come and gone, my, oh, my.