The speed and virtual unanimity with which June 19 joined July 4 might seem to foretell a new reckoning with America’s brutally racist past, spurred on by 2020’s push to confront injustice. Yet instead of a new era of honesty and critical inquiry, the United States is being dragged into a moral panic about anti-racism itself, as agitated parents, right-wing activists and red-state lawmakers rail against their version of critical race theory. Their assault would allow only for a “history” that holds no contemporary consequences; racism ended in the past, according to the developing backlash, and we would all be better off if we didn’t try to connect it to the present.
So in the same week when Juneteenth became a national holiday, schoolteachers in Texas, where the commemoration originally marked the end of slavery in that state, could teach about these events only at their peril: Texas now precludes any teacher from exploring the state’s own history of enslavement if any student should “feel discomfort, guilt, [or] anguish . . . on account of the individual’s race or sex.” On the federal level, the same Republican senators who voted for the Juneteenth holiday also demanded that the Education Department end its effort to encourage schools to fully explore the history of enslavement, saying the push involved “divisive, radical, and historically-dubious buzzwords and propaganda.”
In Oklahoma, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an ill-conceived, overbroad bill that chills the long-overdue reckoning with the Tulsa Race Massacre — a vicious orgy of racist violence carried out in 1921 against one of the nation’s most affluent African American communities. This new law, passed under a special emergency provision, bans the teaching of “divisive concepts” implying that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.”
Texas and Oklahoma join a list of six states that have ratified such legislation, with more than a dozen others considering it. These laws cut off the necessary classroom discussion of racial justice and reconciliation taking shape in Tulsa, Houston, Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, Chicago and other communities across the country inspired by and responsive to #BlackLivesMatter and #SayHerName.
Proponents of such reactionary legislation insist that nothing in the laws bans teaching about historical racism. Technically, that’s true: The text of these laws does not necessarily mention particular historical events, critical race theory or the 1619 Project. That would be far too obvious.
Instead, the laws’ language — often eerily identical — is even more insidious: It explicitly sets out to sanction certain feelings as part of a disingenuous crackdown on racial division. In closing off room to explore the impact of America’s racist history by citing “division” — a subjective condition that turns on any student’s (or parent’s) claim to feel resentment or guilt — the laws directly threaten any teacher who pursues a sustained, critical understanding of the deeper causes, legacies or contemporary implications of racism in fomenting uncivil discord.
The hysteria about this putatively un-American inquiry is possible in part because Americans are not often taught about the policies and practices through which racism has shaped our nation. Nor do we typically teach that racist aggression against reform has been repeatedly legitimized as self-defense — an embodiment of an enduring claim that anti-racism is racism against White people.
This pattern of defending white supremacy by resorting to group interest embodies the very opposite of the individualism so frequently touted in conservative politics. Very few Americans learn that just after the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson vetoed legislation protecting the civil rights of newly freed African Americans, essentially claiming such laws to be preferential treatment for Blacks and reverse discrimination against Whites. Nor is there much candid discussion today about how the wave of White racial terrorism that destabilized Radical Reconstruction in the South was framed as self-defense. This was followed by White segregationist rule for the better part of the 20th century, buttressed by the acquiescence of the Supreme Court and the supposed greatest legal minds of the era.
The reverse-racism trope emerged again after World War II, when segregationists denounced the simple demands for nondiscrimination in public accommodations as assaults on Whites’ civil rights. Likewise, the Southern Manifesto against school desegregation, signed by dozens of White lawmakers, framed widespread resistance to the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in terms of defending White heritage and the well-being of vulnerable White schoolchildren. Unsurprisingly, White children are once again the front line in this current war against critical race theory in the classroom — it’s a tried-and-true method of racial retrenchment.
But the comfort of a ban on whatever conservatives imagine critical race theory to be will further deny students and scholars the chance to understand the past. The massacre in Tulsa a century ago is just one telling example of how the convergence of law, institutions and individuals enabled diabolical attacks on American citizens. Examining Tulsa through the prism of the real critical race theory, which I’ve been a leading scholar in developing, would involve unearthing the conditions that allowed White institutions and leaders of the time to mobilize the law to set a massacre of hundreds in motion, and uncovering the long-term consequences. The legal dimensions would include the formal deputizing and arming of White citizens, the rounding up and interning of survivors, and the filing of charges against victims for inciting violence. Oklahoma’s new law and the others around the country would apparently forbid a close look at the massacre’s legal aftermath — namely, the failure to indict or prosecute anyone. Teachers would be further discouraged from mounting a broader inquiry into the massacre’s legal backdrop — the laws that corralled Blacks into certain neighborhoods and that shored up the economic segregation of professions. The prohibition of any discussion suggesting that there are contemporary responsibilities shared by society as a whole precludes consideration of what a long-overdue commitment to justice might entail.
We know from the history of race in America just where sanitized and whitewashed versions of our past lead — to assumptions that yawning inequalities in health, wealth and a range of other areas are simply inherent features of American life. The fact that the 1921 Tulsa Massacre happened was always knowable — a few survivors are still alive — but without a critical confrontation with our history, the long-term impact of the massacre fades into a bloody mist.
Those who want to expand our nation’s literacy about our racial past and those who wish it to remain illegible to all but a determined few do agree on one thing: that examining our history has consequences. The disagreement becomes volatile when those who embrace America’s promises ask that we take up the truths of our history, while critics claim it is only patriotic to perpetuate a lie. (Martin Luther King Jr. warned of just this sort of turn more than 50 years ago, in “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?,” his final book before he was murdered: “In the days ahead we must not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character.”) Theirs is not a debate about ideas but rather an attempt — on behalf of the racially inequitable status quo — to shut down debate altogether.
The impulse to quash discussion of racism comes out of the same political movement that believes that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election — and that mobs ransacking the Capitol on Jan. 6 were justified in their bloodthirsty assault on democracy because they contend they were there to save it. Understood in context with parallel efforts to suppress democracy and protest, it should be clear that the stakes couldn’t be higher.
Indeed, beyond this incendiary 2022 campaign strategy lies the future of America. We cannot fight to realize our loftiest values if past and present injustices are made unspeakable. This is why anyone who marched for justice for George Floyd or Ahmaud Arbery or Breonna Taylor, anyone who can acknowledge that a sanitized history of the Civil War and Reconstruction led to nearly a century of segregation, anyone who does not want their children insulated from our nation’s past, anyone who is concerned about a creeping authoritarianism and the myths of the past that abet it, and anyone who believes in a truly multiracial democracy should be relentless in opposing the new efforts to banish anti-racist thought and speech from public institutions.
When it comes to racial reckoning, the future of our country depends not on whether we litigate who among us is guilty but whether we all see ourselves as responsible. Let us together stand up to these cynical attacks — we have seen them too many times before to fall prey to another cycle of race, reform and retrenchment.