The raging debate over teaching critical race theory (CRT) in schools is so infused with hyper-partisan and ideologically charged rhetoric that it is exceedingly difficult for most Americans to reach any rational conclusions about this controversial issue. Proponents argue that CRT merely affords students a clearer understanding of the lasting impact that slavery and racism have had on the course and conduct of the nation. Critics contend that critical race theory unfairly brands all U.S. institutions and white Americans as inherently racist. However, a reasoned discussion about the relative merits of teaching CRT requires understanding the multifaceted, inconsistent, but steadfast American commitment to form a more perfect union.
Regrettably, cable networks, social media and even most newspapers provide little help. The insatiable quest for larger audiences compels most media to recruit the usual array of political gladiators loaded with cunning soundbites meant to inflame and entertain. The divide and conquer strategy of the ideologues dominates the media arena while reasoned debate is the inevitable casualty of partisan combat. It is little wonder that many Americans are left desperately holding on to prefabricated partisan viewpoints, unable or unwilling to examine the intricate contours and textures woven into the tapestry of the American experience.
Endeavoring to shed light and considerably less heat on the quarrel surrounding CRT’S educational value, a more balanced assessment of the controversy is necessary. The goal is to take a path less trodden but perhaps more enlightening and less controversial.
Three evident but necessary points should frame the discussion about teaching U.S. history. First, let’s begin with a basic fact to which everyone can agree. Slavery was and is a global phenomenon, not an American invention. Most historians believe that institutionalized slavery begins with the ancient Sumerians who lived in southern Mesopotamia, today’s Iraq. The practice of slavery followed the introduction of agriculture in the Neolithic period around eleven thousand years ago. Initially, slavery was less race-based and more a product of the fruits of war. Slavery became common in many parts of the world. Its widespread use was reinforced by the great empires of antiquity, with the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman Empires all actively exploiting slave labor and the trafficking of human beings. It is important to note that the first African slaves were shipped by Spain to their colonies in the new world in 1526, well over a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire.
Second, it is undeniable that slavery and racism played a cruel, enduring, and crucial role in U.S. history. Slavery predates the creation of the American colonies. Enslaved Africans were first brought to British colonial Virginia in 1619. This event is the reason why many critical race theorists—and the ballyhooed 1619 Project that was put together by staff of the New York Times—claim that 1619, not 1776, marks the true beginning of American history. CRT proponents correctly proclaim that racism and the enslavement of Black people were central to the social, political, and economic development of the American colonies. Just as it had in the old world, agriculture and the hunger for free labor led to the expansion of slavery in the new world. American colonies in the south relied on slave labor to satisfy the growing demand for cotton, tobacco, and other labor-intensive crops. In turn, the sale of African slaves enriched northern merchants, ensuring handsome profits to everyone who exploited human trafficking. It would take the civil war to bring a formal end to the “peculiar institution” of slavery in the United States.
The vestiges of centuries of servitude for black Americans were not swept away by the carnage of the Civil War. The institutionalization of racial inequality didn’t disappear; it transformed and adapted to new conditions while retaining the same unjust goal. The promises of Reconstruction fell victim to Jim Crow laws as white supremacists reasserted their dominance, bypassing local and state laws designed to disenfranchise and deny newly freed blacks their rights as citizens. African Americans in much of the country were saddled with a form of normative slavery that denied their fundamental rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In much of the United States, the rights of African Americans to good public education, owning property, starting a business, and participating in elections were denied or abridged for another century of American history. The legal, social, and political walls erected by white officials to deny fundamental rights to blacks ensured white people a privileged position in society. African Americans were segregated and forced to live in neighborhoods that were often poor, unsafe, and lacked adequate education and health facilities. While this insidious racial stratification has diminished significantly, institutional racism remains deeply embedded in American life. Critical race theory fulfills a vital educational mission by highlighting that slavery and racism left an irrefutable and indelible mark on American history. However, CRT offers a necessary but not sufficient account of America’s complicated story.
Third, all nations are profoundly flawed and scarred by their historical sins, and the United States is certainly no different. The vital question that warrants our attention is whether we as a people have sought to overcome these appalling faults and mistakes? Here the story of U.S. history allows us to embrace a more optimistic interpretation of both our past and present. After all, there are heroes and villains in any story.
Ironically, the United States is often judged more harshly because it was founded on grand ideals. The history of the United States is a quest to fully embrace the Founders' bold declaration to form a more perfect union. Our story is about the complex, often violent, heroic, and inspirational journey to bring into accord the realities of the American experience with the soaring rhetoric of our founders. Our words have repeatedly failed to match our deeds. In 1776, Thomas Jefferson’s audacious assertion that the creator endowed all men with the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness would be strictly limited to white men for centuries to come.
Yet, the arduous march toward liberty pressed on. Each century brought us closer to the great principles enumerated in our founding documents. Political leaders incrementally empowered a more extensive, diverse array of people extending individual rights and protections to disenfranchised and marginalized Americans.
The first significant step forward occurred in 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln issued The Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves in states that had seceded from the Union, except for those in Confederate areas already controlled by the Union army. This reform was followed in succession a few years later by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments that abolished slavery in the entire country, granted citizenship to all people born or naturalized in the United States, including former slaves, and gave black men the right to vote.
Predictably, these impressive reforms failed to live up to their promise as malevolent actors adapted Jim Crow regulations to nullify the effectiveness of the new laws. It would take the political activism of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries to fight for the inalienable rights of all Americans. The decades-long women’s suffrage movement finally achieved the right to vote for females in 1920, although, in practice, women of color were excluded in many parts of the country. The Civil Rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and many others slowly forced most white Americans to confront racial injustice. The 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or origin became law, followed by the Voting Rights Act enfranchising African Americans and other minorities. Slowly but inevitably, a more significant segment of the population achieved a voice in the grand American experiment.
American history is multifaceted, rife with stories of overcoming ancient hatreds, racism, as well as filled with too many examples of injustices and atrocities toward women, indigenous people, Black, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBTQ Americans. Critical Race Theory is essential because it highlights the pervasive impact that racism had and still has on the United States. Indeed, CRT can be used to broaden our understanding of the historical and contemporary contributions of all marginalized Americans. It is also important to remember that CRT provides only a partial picture of America’s long journey toward the gradual but inexorable empowerment of all our citizens. There is still much to be done before we live up to the principles enunciated in our founding documents. The United States remains an imperfect union. Students should be taught that U.S. history is filled with grave injustices worth critically evaluating, but it is also a story of breathtaking achievements worth noting and even celebrating. All of which is worth studying.
Marc Genest is the Forrest Sherman Professor of Public Diplomacy in the Strategy & Policy department at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.