Critical Race Theory and the debate over U.S. history


Rep. Matt Rosendale, R-Mt., released a statement before the vote for the Juneteenth holiday saying, “This is an effort by the Left to … celebrate identity politics as part of its larger efforts to make Critical Race Theory the reigning ideology of our country.” As a result, Republicans have begun a national campaign opposed to teaching Critical Race Theory in public schools and in some state universities.

It is a battle over who has the political power to interpret our nation’s history and shape our future. Critical Race Theory is the current battleground.

Stephen Sawchuk, in a May issue of Education Week, aptly captures both sides in this struggle when he asks, “Is “critical race theory” a way of understanding how American racism has shaped public policy or a divisive discourse that pits People of Color against White people?” However, he quickly notes, “the divides are not nearly as neat as they may seem.”

Standardized history textbooks often credit the Civil War as the final resolution in achieving political equality of former African slaves as U.S. citizens. But some critical historical elements are often ignored.

First, by our constitution, “All persons born in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States.” Importing slaves was outlawed in1808. One could argue that all slaves born in the U.S. after 1808 could be considered citizens.

Second, the 13th amendment passed nearly 60 years after the last slave was admitted. According to the Stanford School of Medicine’s Ethnogeriatrics: in 1860, only 3.5 percent of the slaves were over sixty. Consequently, over 95 percent of the slaves were technically already U.S. citizens since they were “persons born in the United States.”

Third, the Constitutional Convention declaring that three-fifths of the slave population would be counted for determining representation in the House of Representatives. This measure acknowledged slaves as persons and not simply property like livestock.

Even though the constitution recognized and allowed slavery, it was silent on the status of the slave’s children. A legal argument could have been made that those children automatically were citizens and that their continued enslavement was a violation of their constitutional right.

Why wasn’t that legal avenue taken? Because the slave-owning states could stop any such legislation in Congress. They were disproportionately represented in the House of Representatives.  Sixty percent of their slaves figured into the number of representatives that they could send to Congress. In addition, they could influence the makeup of the Supreme Court to the extent that the court’s Dredd Scott decision would forcibly send a free slave in a non-slave state back to a slave state to be shackled again.

Our laws have not been a neutral arbitrator on race relations.  Those biased laws extend from the federal to the state to the municipal level.

And that brings us to where we are today. The fear, spearheaded by the Republican Party, is that CRT demeans America by suggesting that our laws since colonial days have been biased against black slaves and then their decedents.

But CRT goes far beyond the machinations of the Southern slave-holding states. It raises questions of how laws at all government levels have hindered Black Americans’ power to exercise citizenship on par with White citizens. And that theory assaults the American narrative that we have been taught, America is the land of opportunity for all.

When CRT attacks that storyline, it is seen as betraying our traditional image of a great, generous, and unique America. This tradition is based on the belief that a market economy can best provide those opportunities. Critical Race Theory appears to threaten the sanctity of preserving an unregulated marketplace when it shows how slaves were commodities in the market and the source of significant profits to their owners.

For the next 100 years, the new stratum of upper South wealth persuaded the White working poor that the freed Black slaves and their offspring would take jobs away from them. It was a fear also publicly expressed by many White workers in the North.

These are historical facts. Conservatives may not want to dwell on them or even discuss them. However, what frightens them is the Theory of Critical Race, which links the long-lasting effects of slavery with systemic racism ingrained in America’s laws. These laws have shaped our politics, culture, and social relationships.

For example, Kiara Alfonseca of ABC news wrote in her piece “Critical race theory in the classroom: Understanding the debate” that CRT “analyzes benefits White people have in society, which is sometimes referred to as “White privilege.” This refers to the concept that White people continue to be protected from the effects of systemic race-based discrimination because of their skin color.” That may result in a White person feeling guilty. But that’s up to the individual.

Another approach articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founding critical race theorist and Columbia Law School professor is to see critical race theory as a discipline that seeks to understand how racism has shaped U.S. laws and how those laws have continued to impact the lives of non-White people. It’s an approach that opens a discussion about what has happened in the past and how it continues to affect everyone.

What is needed at this time is recognizing what has occurred in the past and how it has shaped our present reality.

Nick Licata is author of “Becoming A Citizen Activist,” and has served five terms on the Seattle City Council.