I'm a big believer in self-reflection on a personal level, a professional level and a societal level.
I firmly believe that if we as individuals and collectively are able to critically think about our failures and shortcomings, we can use them as motivation and as a roadmap for how to improve.
Now I wanted to begin there because it informs how I view this ongoing debate around critical race theory, which seems to have become the latest partisan flashpoint in the "culture wars." Clearly some people are referencing it without understanding what it actually entails.
Critical race theory has been an academic concept for more than four decades. Its basic principles grew out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and '80s.
At its core the theory's purpose, according to scholars, is to examine how racism has shaped the U.S. legal system and public policy affecting many aspects of American life and American institutions.
"It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers," wrote Janel George, a civil rights lawyer and adjunct professor, in an article for the American Bar Association.
"It recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation."
The theory's definition isn't supposed to be narrow or static; it is supposed to be evolving, malleable, said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a Columbia law professor who helped coin the term.
In contrast, the most vocal Republican lawmakers and conservatives have deemed critical race theory the "new intolerance."
They say it underpins "identity politics," normalizes a belief in systemic racism and makes race the prism through which its proponents analyze all aspects of American life. They also contend it's divisive and racist — against white people.
"Critical race theory asserts that people with white skin are inherently racist, not because of their actions, words or what they actually believe in their heart, but by virtue of the color of their skin," said South Carolina Rep. Ralph Norman at a news conference last month. He called for the federal government to not fund schools that teach critical race theory.
"Democrats want to teach our children to hate each other," added Colorado Rep. Lauren Boebert.
Making the leap to believe that engaging in critical race theory means people will automatically think every white person is racist is silly. I believe people are intelligent enough to understand that Americans and their institutions can function in a discriminatory or racist way without people as individuals being racist or having malice in their hearts.
Here's the thing though, I don't really care about critical race theory in and of itself. What bothers me is that this debate has become another distraction from the uncomfortable conversation our country should be having about racism. I think there are a lot of these vocal conservatives who recognize that and are acting — in bad faith — to perpetuate American denial of that reality.
Critical race theory has become this catch-all term used to oppose any kind of education or programming that openly addresses the role of race and racism — efforts that have gained significant support over the past year in the wake of George Floyd being murdered.
Or as Andrew Hartman, a history professor from Illinois State University, told NPR last week, "Critical race theory becomes a stand-in for this larger anxiety about people being upset about persistent racism."
Unfortunately a significant chunk of Republican legislators are willing to take advantage of this anxiety, using faux-complaints about divisiveness to push something that allows some Americans to avoid talking about racial inequalities and injustices, to instead live in denial about this country's history.
This year legislators in at least 15 states have introduced bills to restrict how teachers can discuss racism, sexism and other societal issues in their classrooms.
At least four states — Tennessee, Iowa, Idaho and Oklahoma — already passed laws. This legislation bears similar language to an executive order issued by President Donald Trump in September that excluded from federal contracts any diversity and inclusion training interpreted as containing "divisive concepts," "race or sex stereotyping," and "race or sex scapegoating."
Educators and free speech advocates rightly criticized Trump's order and these laws as nebulous threats to educators who dare to discuss how racism and sexism have shaped this country.
"History teachers cannot adequately teach about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War and the civil rights movement," an English teacher told Chalkbeat Tennessee. "English teachers will have to avoid teaching almost any text by an African American author, because many of them mention racism to various extents."
There's nothing wrong with talking about America's failures, our country's history of racism and hate, or acknowledging how those things have impact today. At least, there shouldn't be anything wrong with kids having open conversations about that in the classroom.
Because the beauty of America isn't that we're perfect or some shining beacon of righteousness. Rather it's that, despite our flaws and comparatively short history, we are a country with exceptional ideals, boundless potential and decent people who are willing to push ourselves to be better than we are.
We're never going to reach our potential, though, if we live in denial.
Charles T. Clark is a columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune.