In recent months, we’ve seen a concerted attack on critical race theory. Though most opponents probably couldn’t even give an accurate definition of it, this hasn’t stopped state legislatures across the country from banning critical race theory in schools. They argue that CRT promotes racial separation, insists that America is an irredeemably racist country, and germinates self-hate within the hearts and minds of white youth.
There have been plenty of essays explaining that the scare over critical race theory is an attempt to prevent a more accurate accounting of American history. From attacks on the 1619 Project to the recent controversy over the decision by trustees at the University of North Carolina to deny tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones to the invocation of “wokeness” and other threats to the status quo, demonizing CRT gives the GOP another front in the culture war. This sleight-of-hand politics distracts from their ongoing fight to block the Biden administration from implementing popular policies.
But you already know that. So instead I’d like to pose a more speculative question: What would happen if conservatives got what they wanted in this cultural war over education?
Imagine an America where critical race theory or the 1619 Project actually aren’t allowed to be taught: where colleges purge their campuses of “liberal indoctrination,” patriotic education prevails in earlier levels of schooling, and educational institutions become safe spaces where students can feel proud to be an American—because American history is taught as, to quote James Baldwin, a “catalogue of virtues.”
If this politically correct version of American education—one more palatable to the sensibilities of the dominant group in US society—were to happen, what might the consequences be, both in the academy and beyond?
Ironically, some aspects would not change much. Students would learn even less about slavery than they already do. High school seniors would make it to college without being able to identify slavery as the central cause of the “War of Northern Aggression.” Teachers in cities with names like Kankakee or Minnewanka would explain to students, as Rick Santorum did, that “there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
High school graduates would embark on the rest of their lives knowing more about Manifest Destiny than the history of the Indigenous people who once inhabited the land they live on. And because scholars and policy-makers would have a political disincentive to connect current racial inequalities to past oppression, the overarching view Americans would hold is that racial disparities (between black and white people, for example) are simply the result of one group’s not working as hard as the other.
To echo The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer, if we came to a consensus “that ugly aspects of American history should not be taught, for fear that students—white students in particular—might draw unfavorable conclusions about America,” it might not too long before we decided we don’t really need to teach history past the basics, if at all. Why educate when you can just put on the America’s Greatest Hits album?
Though a world where the cultural grievances of conservatives were resolved might sound great to many in the GOP, it wouldn’t necessarily lead to better electoral outcomes for them. Without their perpetual culture war, Republicans would have only their neoliberal or libertarian economic policies to run on. But most Americans support progressive policies like paid maternity leave and government-funded child care, higher minimum wages, tuition-free public college and the elimination of student debt, federal guarantees for health care, etc. So a win in our educational system would not guarantee a win elsewhere.
Banning critical race theory also wouldn’t solve other issues related to free speech and academic integrity. Instead, conservatives, who now like to pose as the defenders of free speech, would have to reconcile their claim that teaching about slavery and tracing its effects on contemporary society is essentially teaching self-hate to white kids with their oft-repeated argument (almost exclusively aimed at the left) that words are not violence, that you combat bad speech with more speech and that we must eliminate safe spaces. If banning CRT (both in its actual meaning and any of the nebulous caricatures of it) is an admission that words actually can be violence, what violence are we doing to black kids when we “both sides” or sugarcoat slavery?
I sometimes wonder if the root of all this recent culture-war discourse is that even cursory knowledge of our country’s past causes white kids to ask their parents complex and uncomfortable questions. Kids are not naive. They see the socioeconomic differences between races, most salient in the black-white wealth gap. It’s much easier to ban critical race theory than to prevent children from doing what comes naturally—to see a difference and be curious about why it exists.
The version of American history that conservatives seem to want is one where the Black experience is whitewashed so that the heroic American mythos can be preserved and extended. Frankly, as long as Black people exist, that is simply impossible. Which is why I believe the conservative dream of an “anti-woke” society will never come true.
No amount of patriotism or “balance” can erase the fact that history—very much including American history—is full of blood and tears. If we want the best obtainable version of the truth to shine through, we don’t get to escape the cost—wrestling with tensions and contradictions, coping with the cognitive dissonance between our past and present—which allows us to step into who we can be. Chaining ourselves to some idyllic, mythic idea of America instead of acknowledging our reality will keep us locked in a state of perpetual immaturity.
Baldwin wrote that people “who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, indeed, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.” I would argue that allowing—indeed, encouraging—a more accurate depiction of our history is the only way to remove that pin and learn to fly.