Until fairly recently, discussions about critical race theory were more likely to be found in academic journals than the opinion page of The Bismarck Tribune. But as Republican governors and legislators across the country attempt to control how issues of race are handled in public schools and universities, it has become the latest battle line in the culture wars.
Critical race theory has been around for decades. It grew out of a movement known as critical legal studies which originated in a handful of law schools in the mid-1970s. Some legal scholars believed the victories of the Civil Rights era were more about improving the image of white people than benefiting Black people, so they began to formulate a theory of the law based on systemic racism.
Broadly and somewhat simplistically defined, critical race theory is the idea that racism is a fundamental feature of American history, society and government. The theory has been applied in numerous disciplines, but many of its core ideas are animated by the historical claim that the American system was designed to benefit white people at the expense of people of color.
Critical race theory is deserving of criticism, especially in its extreme iterations. The most strident proponents of critical race theory advance a simplistic interpretation of American history in which nearly every person or event is seen through the lens of race and oppression. It often looks less like an honest attempt at historical interpretation and more like an exercise in self-righteous condemnation.
Critical race theory is problematic as a theory of history, but also problematic is the idea that we should let politicians ban certain ideas from public schools. Ideas should not be banned, they should be debated. That’s the fundamental principle underlying the First Amendment and is essential in fostering academic freedom.
We should be especially wary of banning one theory from public schools when many of those leading the effort are simply attempting to advance their own narrow theory of history. Much of the effort to ban critical race theory is motivated by an equally simplistic view of American history, a fawning patriotism in which our nation’s historical sins are diminished or ignored. Demands for “patriotic education” smack of the same type of indoctrination for which many critical race theorists are rightly criticized.
You can’t study American history without realizing that race is a huge part of our story, but that doesn’t mean America is an inherently evil or racist country. You can rightfully celebrate and revere all that is good and great about American history and still recognize the shameful and regrettable aspects of our past.
No history textbook or teacher is completely neutral, but the goal should be to teach history from an objective and balanced viewpoint, not according to any one narrow theory. Students should be exposed to as much of the story as possible.
Truth and understanding are the first casualties in any culture war battle, so it’s not surprising that the current debate tends to produce more heat than light. The extreme partisans on both sides would have us believe that the choice is between “patriotic” history or critical race theory. America is either a shining city upon a hill or one giant plantation. That’s obviously a false dichotomy. American history should not be reduced to a nationalistic rallying cry or an act of collective self-flagellation.
Every theory of history has something to offer, but none should enjoy a monopoly. Subscribing to one interpretation and opposing all others is a reflection of partisan myopia, not a desire for historical understanding.
If you think history should be taught according to one theory or interpretation, you need to read more history.
Tory Jackson is an attorney and writer. His legal practice involves real estate and business matters, with a particular focus on historic rehabilitation projects. He holds degrees from Bismarck State College, the University of Virginia and Harvard Law School. He lives in Bismarck, where he was born and raised.