Regarding critical race theory: Can we talk about American history like grown ups?

By: - May 28, 2021 7:00 am

Our legacy: 1862 painting of a slave auction in Richmond, Va., by the British artist LeFevre J. Cranstone. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Florida State University’s new president will be Richard McCullough of Harvard.


The state Board of Governors must still ratify his selection when they meet in late June, and while it’s unlikely they’ll put forth another candidate, it’s not impossible.

They are political animals, and higher education in Florida — as in other red states — is captive to the often-destructive whims of its rich Republican overseers.

Some of the governors and trustees are still unhappy that state Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, who is to academic expertise and intellectual freedom what Donald Trump is to veracity and grace, didn’t make the short list. FSU trustee Craig Mateer, a big Republican donor, sulked through most of Monday’s trustees meeting. He said it was “unfair.”

Richard McCullough. Credit: FSU

Yeah, why would you want a distinguished materials scientist with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, the guy who’s led research at Carnegie Mellon and Harvard, when you could have the political hack who, when asked about climate change — only the greatest single threat to the state — said, “Whatever.”

Academic freedom is under threat. The trustees of Florida Atlantic University now want to make tenure decisions. Why should a bunch of eggheady experts, professors, and deans with years of experience get to choose?

One FAU trustee expressed misgivings about professors having a “job for life” (which, unless they’re really productive, they don’t), especially when they might hold ideas unfriendly to the established Church of Conservatism?

“Some of us have been appointed by this governor and past governors, all with a certain belief system,” said trustee Barbara Feingold, senior vice president for managed care for North America Dental Group. “I won’t want to go against that system. It’s my belief system, too.”

What could possibly go wrong? Maybe something like this? Nikole Hannah-Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winner and MacArthur “genius” grant recipient, has been appointed to the Knight Chair at the University of North Carolina, a position funded by the Knight Foundation to promote the teaching and practice of journalism.

She looked pretty damn qualified. Yet the Board of Trustees at Chapel Hill denied her tenure. Previous Knight chairs — all white — had all been granted tenure on appointment. Hannah-Jones is black, creator of The New York Times’ “The 1619 Project,” a provocative retelling of U.S. history that puts slavery, not Founding Fathers and high talk of “liberty,” at the center of the nation’s birth.

A few mainstream historians — mostly liberals — led by Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, objected to the project’s assertion that preserving the institution of slavery (the biggest engine of wealth in the colonies) was a central cause for the American Revolution. The New York Times clarified — or corrected — its text, allowing for more nuance.

‘Twisted web of lies’

Still, “The 1619 Project” made a lot of white people mad. The Heritage Foundation lamented that it would teach people to hate their country; Newt Gingrich called it “brainwashing;” Donald Trump called it “a twisted web of lies.”

And a North Carolina think tank pitched a hissy fit, accusing “unaccountable professors” (these people have clearly never been to a faculty meeting) of turning UNC’s journalism school into a “ministry of propaganda.”

Nikole Hannah-Jones. Credit: Alice Vergueiro/Abraji via Wikimedia Commons

All because Nikole Hannah-Jones hurt white folks’ feelings.

In Texas, the increasingly deranged Republicans who run state government have passed a law forbidding “critical race theory and 1619 myths” in Texas public schools. Teachers who discuss sexism in social studies class or racism in history class will be breaking the law.

Many Texas teachers say they won’t be able to discuss current events, and God knows what will happen if anyone dares mention that the Battle of the Alamo in 1836 was not exactly the all-American fight against Mexican tyranny as depicted by John Wayne, but a bunch of white colonists determined to make Texas safe for slavery — which Mexico had banned.

Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, and other “heroes” were slaveholders.

Here in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis also wants to whitewash history. He’s been on a months-long rant about the sinister designs of those who would introduce critical race theory into any classroom at any level.

“It’s offensive to the taxpayer that they would be asked to fund critical race theory,” he huffs. “That they would ask to fund teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.”

As usual, DeSantis plays on white people’s desperate need to believe that America is virtuous, and that they are the country’s natural rulers. They’re terrified. The world is changing: Black people, brown people, all kinds of people no longer worship at America’s exceptionalist altar. Who are they if they are not the greatest people in the greatest nation on earth?

DeSantis, who apparently learned his Grade A gaslighting from his master Trump, banks on people’s refusal to think past the obvious — or whatever the glossy twits on Fox News say. Critical race theory is nothing more sinister than telling the truth — admittedly, often not pretty — about America from the time the first Europeans took the land from indigenous people and brought enslaved Africans to work that land, developing an entire ideology of white supremacy to justify it.

Denying reality

As an essay published by the American Bar Association points out, critical race theory “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.”

To deny this is to deny reality: Things in the United States are surely better than 100 years ago, but Jim Crow, in the form of new voter suppression laws, is still hanging around.

To conservatives, simply acknowledging the facts of America’s past — and present — feels like an attack. They need to get over it. Critical race theory does not negate the achievement of America’s founding documents. It complicates them. It is true that the United States was founded on slavery. It is also true that the Constitution promises liberty. We should be able to talk about this like grown people.

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello used slaves on his plantation. Credit: Wikipedia.

Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant man, an architect, author of the Declaration of Independence, a lawyer, a philosopher deeply conflicted over his ownership of other human beings. He also raped a teenaged girl named Sally Hemings (she was probably his dead wife’s half-sister, too), producing children with her— children who were also enslaved.

Smart people can handle the contradictions of the past. A secure nation acknowledges its historical shortcomings.

But DeSantis, Texas Republicans, and a lot of conservative appointees to university oversight boards can’t cope with the paradoxes that come with knowledge. They want to hear that America is virtuous and always has been. Anything that might suggest white people have done wrong seems to render them paralyzed with denial.

The worst of them just make stuff up, you know: Barack Obama is a Muslim; COVID-19 is no worse than a cold; Donald Trump really won the 2020 election; Jewish space lasers started the California wildfires.

The purpose of education is to uncover truths, not to wallow in ignorant self-aggrandizement or to ignore that which makes you uncomfortable.

Anyway, how can you love a country that lies to you?

Assuming he sticks around, FSU’s new president, who is accustomed to evaluating the world based on experiment and evidence, will soon discover that dealing with the governor and Legislature requires that he try not to upset them with too much reality.

“Contrariwise,” continued Tweedledee, “if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn’t, it ain’t. That’s logic.”

Welcome to the state that’s way through the Looking Glass, Dr. McCullough — and good luck.

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Diane Roberts
Diane Roberts

Diane Roberts is an 8th-generation Floridian, born and bred in Tallahassee, which probably explains her unhealthy fascination with Florida politics. Educated at Florida State University and Oxford University in England, she has been writing for newspapers since 1983. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Times of London, the Guardian, the Washington Post, the Oxford American, and Flamingo.