During our editorial board’s meeting this week we spent some time talking about the current debate over critical race theory. It’s a subject that we were hesitant to speak up on given that we weren’t sure there was a great deal we could constructively add.
As the conversation developed, we realized there was indeed something we could say. Frankly, most people arguing over it don’t seem to really know what it means. That needs to change.
Over the past year, critical race theory has emerged as one of the flashpoint terms in our country’s ongoing political wrangling. There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground. That’s not inherently problematic, but it becomes such when there’s zero interest in learning what the theory even is aside from what the televised talking head of your choice claims.
Part of the issue is that not everyone who embraces critical race theory defines it in the same way. The basic tenets hold that racial disparities in the United States are often supported by structural, social and legal frameworks that protect and perpetuate the status quo. But the degree to which those factors are present and the specific mechanisms by which they act are subject to the interpretation of the theorist in question.
Critical race theory is also blended into multiple offshoots, including focusing on multiple racial and ethnic minorities, gender studies and even disabilities. So, when someone mentions critical race theory, it’s fair to ask which one they’re speaking about. The fact people don’t makes it easier for both supporters and detractors to cherry pick quotes and arguments to portray their opposite numbers as extremists.
This isn’t the first time in political history where the theory was a flashpoint. When Bill Clinton nominated Lani Guinier for assistant attorney general, her association with critical race theory was one of the issues raised by opponents. When Clinton rescinded her nomination, the issue retreated for the moment.
What all of this underscores in a very clear way is that those who argue history is the past, a settled record no longer subject to changes in understanding or analysis, are very much incorrect. History is, and always has been, a lens through which we see ourselves. That means it’s alive.
It takes little imagination to transfer the successes or failures of the past to the realities of the present. Examples abound. The way in which sports teams highlight the banners and tokens of past championships is a comparatively innocuous illustration. The near-mythological status people tend to attribute to their cultural pasts does exactly the same thing, though with far more serious implications.
What’s the solution? We as a nation have never been particularly good at agreeing on what the past meant, and that’s not likely to change now. And, absent such agreement, the debates will continue.
The solution, as we see it, lies in education. Not the formal education of your youth, sitting in a classroom absorbing the received wisdom (or at least approved interpretation) of an instructor. We must become a nation of students, a people willing to study and develop our own understandings of the past and its place in our lives today.
There can be no one size fits all answer. Not when we’re talking about a vast array of experiences and backgrounds from which people derive individual identities. So we must study. The best scholars also understand the value in studying the ideas of those with whom they disagree. Doing so transforms those opinions from something to be rejected without thought into the stone against which your own thought may be sharpened.
Right now, too much of the debate relies on straw man arguments. It devolves into people claiming one group wants to destroy history, while another is composed of malignant racists. Both are shallow fallacies. There are those who want to challenge our understanding of history without erasing anything. And there are those who have concerns about doing so that are not based on race.
That, then, is our call. Elevate the discussion. Study. Understand. If you want to discuss a flashpoint, ensure that you at least know enough to discuss it intelligently.