Is critical race theory ubiquitously taught in Minnesota schools and in other states across the country, as some vehemently claim and others deny just as forcefully? Different players define CRT in different ways, making it hard to tell. But for the sake of argument let's say "no," it's not being taught in very large numbers of schools — if by "critical race theory" one means a curricular philosophy that's a precise descendant of very dark interpretations of American and capitalist life first espoused by a relatively small cadre of left-wing, French-influenced academics, especially at elite colleges and universities, decades ago.
To better understand the current debate, it's helpful not to conceive of CRT as anything as formal, but more simply as an extra-severe and fundamentally misleading way of thinking and talking about race in the United States, among other facets of national life. As for example:
After centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, redlining and the rest, it's obviously true that racism remains "systemic" at some level. How could it not be? In this sense, CRT advocates are right, again at some level.
Yet it's also clearly true that "systemic racism" in this country is not nearly as profoundly insidious and stunting as they tend to argue. Yes, absolutely, slavery was America's original sin, whose tentacles still bedevil. But here's the dangerous problem with the current situation: Teaching kids, especially boys and girls of color, that racist and bigoted roadblocks are significantly more entrenched and crippling than they really are is a pedagogical sin of its own.
I'm occasionally asked why I'm conservative. A good portion of my answer goes back to the late 1960s when it was at least implicitly claimed by many partisans in the war on poverty that the U.S. was not just a racially unfair society but an acutely crippling one. This view inescapably resulted in many African American and other students wrongly inferring that their chances of adult success were crucially abridged, prompting them to conclude in turn, "What the hell, why should I do any homework? Why should I study hard? I don't have much of a future anyway." To expect kids under such circumstances to sweat and strive educationally was often expecting too much. This was a destructive dynamic, one that was better understood by those on the right than on the left, as it still is.
An up-to-date question: Does CRT's emphasis on how society supposedly deeply disfavors Black kids, with some educators explicitly calling them true "victims," invite similarly self-defeating responses by many young people? How could it not?
But does opposition to education policies and practices that are quick to imagine victims lead just as readily to determined efforts to whitewash the teaching of history and other subjects? No, it does not.
I've spent a long time in conservative circles, and I've read an enormous amount of conservative commentary in that time, and I can faithfully say I've never encountered anyone who has argued, at least to me, that children (as well as grown-ups) should be kept oblivious to what they need to know as citizens about our racial heritage. Are there voices and people out there who, in fact, want students to learn only what's sweet and not sour about our racial past? Certainly, but they ultimately will prove to be bit players.
Here's a contentious thought sure to rile a few.
We spend too much time talking about and factoring in race in virtually everything we do, often making matters worse than they really are. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as a member of the Nixon administration, said much the same in 1970, when in a memo to the president he wrote: "The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of 'benign neglect.' " He later put it this way in a New York Times interview:
"What I was saying was that the more we discuss race as an issue, the more people get polarized, the more [that] crazy racists on the left and maybe crazy racists on the right shout and yell and make things so much worse than they are, when in fact the 1960s have been a period of enormous progress."
Moynihan was pilloried, of course, but he was on target then, and I suspect he might say something similarly useful now if he were sizing up current battles over CRT, be its presence real or just assumed.
Mitch Pearlstein is founder emeritus of Center of the American Experiment and president of Pearlstein Public Affairs.