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Ted Cruz gave the nation a lesson on misreading kids books

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) holds up the children's book "Antiracist Baby," by Ibram X. Kendi, as he questions Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson. (Michael Mccoy/Reuters)
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Everyone expected Ketanji Brown Jackson to face tough questions during the Senate confirmation hearing on her nomination to the Supreme Court.

No one expected those questions to focus, briefly and bizarrely, on a picture book.

For that instructive surprise, we can thank Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who demonstrated on Tuesday that his wisdom as a senator is matched only by his discernment as a book reviewer.

Ted Cruz told Ketanji Brown Jackson that Bushrod Washington was not ‘controversial.’ He was an enslaver.

While questioning the judge about her fitness to sit on the Supreme Court, Cruz turned the discussion to the Georgetown Day School, a tony Washington-area prep school where Jackson serves as a trustee. From Cruz’s description, it sounds like a hotbed of Black Marxist indoctrination, but fortunately, Georgetown Day costs up to $46,000 a year, so most children are at low risk of falling under anti-capitalist influence. Nevertheless, Cruz was alarmed.

“If you look at the Georgetown Day School’s curriculum, it is filled and overflowing with critical race theory,” the senator claimed, “literally stacks and stacks of books.”

To demonstrate the magnitude of this Borgesian Library of Babel, Cruz reached beneath his desk and hefted up a tower of four little books.

But the “stunning” title he singled out for special attention was a 2020 picture book titled “Antiracist Baby,” written by Ibram X. Kendi and illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky.

Profile: The Anti-Racist Revelations of Ibram X. Kendi

While the senator struck a patient tone hovering between disgust and incredulity, an aide displayed large blowout images of the pages as though they were frames from the Zapruder film.

Cruz, the leading auteur of White Outrage Theater, intoned, “One portion of the book says, ‘Babies are taught to be racist or anti-racist — there is no neutrality.’ Another portion of the book: They recommend that babies ‘confess when being racist.’”

Noting that “Antiracist Baby” is being taught to children ages 4 through 7, Cruz asked Jackson, “Do you agree with this book that is being taught to kids that babies are racist?”

Jackson sighed, “Senator. . .” and then she paused. She paused for a long time — long enough, perhaps, for millions of Black Americans to recall the last time some sanctimonious White man tried to dismiss, depreciate or deny the complexity of systemic racism.

“I do not believe that any child should be made to feel as though they are racist,” Jackson said, “or as though they are not valued, or as though they are less than, that they are victims, that they are oppressors — I don’t believe in any of that.”

Senators often complain that they have to vote on legislation that runs to thousands of pages, bills so long that they can’t possibly read them all. “Antiracist Baby” is a mere 24 pages, and yet Cruz sounded as though he hadn’t made it all the way to the note to parents and caregivers at the end. There, Cruz would have discovered Kendi’s perfectly reasonable contention that people are not born racist; they learn racist attitudes from the society around them — and far earlier than most of us want to admit. “It is our responsibility to counter those messages,” Kendi writes, and not to feel so embarrassed about racism that we ignore it. What’s more, he goes on to recommend that we “help children understand that racist policies are the problem, not people.”

But Cruz wasn’t done misinterpreting kids books for polemic effect. While continuing to press Jackson to say that critical race theory is taught at Georgetown Day School — as though that would have any relevance to her work on the Supreme Court — he turned his attention to a book titled “Stamped (for Kids).”

Cruz claimed that “Stamped (for Kids)” is also by Kendi, but that elision is typical of the senator’s method.

Background: In 2016, Kendi published a magnificent book titled “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In 2020, Kendi and Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature at the Library of Congress, published a “remix” of the book for readers ages 12 and older. Inflected with Reynolds’s humorous, vibrant voice, it’s a phenomenally engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking work of cultural and historical analysis for young people. And last year, Sonja Cherry-Paul published “Stamped (For Kids),” a chapter-book adaptation for grade-school children, with illustrations by Rachelle Baker.

Review: "Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America"

Cruz didn’t mention the award-winning adult version or even the widely hailed YA version, but he said he’d managed to read “the entirety” of the children’s edition. Like many of its fans, he called it “an astonishing book.” But, of course, he didn’t mean that as a compliment.

Opening “Stamped (for Kids),” the senator turned to Jackson and said, “On page 33, it asks the question, Can we send White people back to Europe? That’s what’s being given to 8- and 9-year-olds.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of what “Stamped” actually says. Cruz is using the same dubious method employed by book-banning advocates around the country: Find a suspicious-sounding phrase, distort or omit its context and then condemn the book and anyone who approves of it.

The page that Cruz was referring to in “Stamped (for Kids)” does not suggest that White people should be sent back to Europe. Instead, that phrase appears in a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s conflicted attitudes about slavery. The authors rightly note that “one idea tossed around by White assimilationists was for Black people to ‘go back’ to Africa and the Caribbean. But Black people didn’t want to ‘go back’ to a place that many had never known. Their ancestors had been captured from Africa and brought to North America, where generations of Black people were born. They’d built America as enslaved people and wanted what they were owed. Freedom in the country they’d built.”

In an aside, the authors write, “Just imagine what Native Americans and Black people must have wished about their White oppressors: Can we send White people ‘back’ to Europe?”

It’s a passage infused with the authors’ empathy, wit and historical insight. But those qualities were lost on Cruz as he charged ahead with his misrepresentation, twisting a crude comment hurled at Black Americans into an imaginary insult against White people.

For her part, Jackson wouldn’t be drawn into the senator’s antique trap.

“I have not reviewed any of those books, any of those ideas,” she replied with the patience of Job. “They don’t come up in my work as a judge, which I’m respectfully here to address.”

On his next vacation, perhaps the senator from Texas should skip Cancún and sit in with the fifth-graders at Georgetown Day School. If he could listen for a moment, he might learn something.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post.

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