When my children were in grade school and high school I wanted to get involved in their learning. I had been fearful of some of the new things emerging in education and with little understanding, I ran for a seat on the board of education. Some of the issues at that time were similar to the issues that are being discussed today except they had different names. At the time I served, one of the big issues was multi-culturalism. Critics were concerned that their children would be exposed to diverse views in History and that what we needed to do was return to a Western view of History. Today, when the term Critical Race Theory is tossed about, I am reminded of my time on the board of education.
What is Critical Race Theory?
“Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
What is curious to me is that critics of CRT believe that no injustice exists within our legal systems and policies. As a Christian who takes sin seriously, it is logical that sinful humans can create structures and systems that are also unjust and oppressive. The Bible is full of stories within which real humans experienced injustice at the hands of cruel leaders and within nations that were oppressive. We see this most clearly in the Exodus narrative when God’s people were enslaved for 400 years.
The Egyptians enacted laws that enslaved God’s people, then enacted laws to justify murdering their infants, then enacted laws to make their work more difficult. They created a system that was oppressive for the Hebrew people. Sinful humans, create systems that are oppressive to others. Furthermore, the prophets in the Old Testament often held the whole nation of Israel accountable for their injustice speaking truth to their people and leaders about how God wanted them to live.
Back to schools and teaching:
One of the concerns that has arisen for me is a concern that when critics of CRT pass laws against teaching “CRT” is that the meaning is defined more broadly than it’s true definition. I am observing that critics of CRT are applying this label to the teaching of basic US History. I am worried about an idealized narrative.
As a board of education member, I served on several committees one of which was the curriculum committee. We talked much about History and the way good History is done. Good History involves a variety of narratives and perspectives.
When we consider slavery in the US, good History will help us understand the perspective of the slave—what did they experience and write about? Then the slave owner—how did he think or justify his acts? Also the society within which slavery emerged—how did economic and cultural issues of the day fuel the slave trade? We might also discuss the ways that society thought about slaves. It is even relevant to consider how churches at the time either joined the abolition movement or sought to theologically justify that institution?
Good History provides us with a variety of viewpoints so that students can fully grasp the reality of what really happened.
My concern with critics who misunderstand and oppose teaching this kind of History is that they would like an idealized narrative of what happened. It really matters that students understand and grasp how slavery and racism emerged and how we might notice attitudes toward African Americans then and today that still impact the lives of real people.
Good teachers will use these concepts appropriately and without shaming students. And good teachers will be concerned about teaching History in an age appropriate way. Good teachers will also be concerned about how teaching history will include their students of color.
One final thought.
I wonder how must the role of shame plays into the opposition of CRT? When we cannot look at our lives—ourselves, we may have a large shame bucket that gets tapped. One way of dealing with shame is to avoid or rewrite the story so that we feel better. But that is not how our faith teaches us to respond. Time and time again in the Bible, we learn that the truth will set us free and that by examining our stuff, by owning our stuff and changing our ways, we will find spiritual and emotional health.
We are people of shalom, people who desire to live in the Jesus way with courage and insight.