Aren’t pride and shame just flip sides of the same coin? Which side are Republicans looking at as they take up the battle against critical race theory?
Even though many Americans would be hard pressed to describe CRT, it has become a prime focus of Republican objection. Here in Texas, for example, Gov. Greg Abbott recently convened a special legislative session to urge the passage of new laws that will completely ban the teaching of CRT in public schools in Texas.
CRT is neither new nor terribly complicated. It’s merely a way of describing our nation’s racial history. It says that we can better understand race in America by thinking in terms of systems and institutions, rather than in terms of discrimination at a person-to-person level.
This shouldn’t be controversial. Nearly everyone understands that the Constitution counted Black Americans as three-fifths of a white person, a calculation that stayed in place for nearly a hundred years. Indian removal wasn’t the result of individual frontiersmen pushing Indians off their land; it was national policy. During the long reign of Jim Crow, individual Americans didn’t segregate schools; the Supreme Court did. For decades we even restricted some of the nation’s best baseball players to a separate Negro League.
In short, racism in America was institutional from our founding, and while we’ve come a long way, we haven’t completed the task of eradicating institutional racism from our society.
So CRT is not an outlandish partisan plan to undermine Americanism. It’s just an informed way of thinking about race in America.
Then why are Republicans so determined to protect us from this very honest understanding of American history? Is it pride or shame?
Every nation is inclined to glorify its past. We want to take pride in our Founders as heroes who risked their lives for the high principles embodied in our Constitution and other founding documents. There’s something to that.
At the same time, these men reflected the times into which they were born, and many never got far beyond them. In fact, many of the men that we’ve traditionally honored with statues and the names of cities and streets were white supremacists, as well as slave owners, Indian killers, liars, adulterers, alcoholics and terrible family men.
These men may have been heroes, but they weren’t saints. An exaggerated and undue sense of pride in their accomplishments does nothing to enhance our understanding of ourselves and our country.
In fact, too much pride is misleading. For example, some Americans can’t get over their pride in the Old South. Thus we have the Sons of the Confederacy, as well as more pernicious organizations. In this pride reside the roots of the astonishing sight of the Confederate battle flag being paraded defiantly around our nation’s capitol on Jan. 6.
On the other hand, there’s such a thing as too much shame: A few years ago the actor Ben Affleck was so embarrassed by his slaveholding ancestors that he tried to have that part of his family history edited out of the PBS documentary “Finding Your Roots.”
Both of these positions are ridiculous. My ancestors were documented Confederate soldiers, slaveholders and white supremacists. But that was 160 years ago. At this far remove, what does pride or shame in their particular attitudes and actions have to do with me?
Every family is populated by saints and sinners, priests and prostitutes, heroes and cowards in ways over which we have no control. So is every nation. But we have no particular right to undue pride or obligation for excessive responsibility for things that long precede our births.
Like the history of every human life, our nation’s history is a complicated balance of pride and shame. But a healthy person and a healthy nation find ways to get over both.
CRT says accurately that American racism is systemic. Still, the solution to racism is personal. We reform our institutions when we get past pride and shame and begin to reform the way we treat each other, person to person.
Reach Crisp at firstname.lastname@example.org.