How Does It Feel to Be a Problem?
“Raise up a child in the way that he should go and, when he grows old, he will not depart from it.” Proverbs 22:6
“It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.” Frederick Douglass
“To any citizen of this country who figures himself as responsible—and particularly those of you who deal with the minds and hearts of young people—must be prepared to “go for broke.” Or to put it another way, you must understand that in the attempt to correct so many generations of bad faith and cruelty, when it is operating not only in the classroom but in society, you will meet the most fantastic, the most brutal, and the most determined resistance. There is no point in pretending that this won’t happen.” James Baldwin, A Talk to Teachers, 1963
This is not a research paper. This is a reorientation.
I was revisiting W. E. B. Du Bois’s seminal work The Souls of Black Folk during a drive to an appointment, and I was struck by the way he opens with a scene that leads to a question:
Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.
As the US Congress and statehouses, school boards, and city halls across the country rage on about what place conversations regarding America’s addiction to racialized cruelty, Right-wing opponents of Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, or whatever else releases the stench of the bodies stashed under our nation’s floorboards — a common retort is “What about the children?” The children they are concerned with, of course, are their children. White children. America’s “favorite” children. These subjects, some claim, will cause them to be upset. These challenging lessons will unearth doubts about their inviolate heritage. It will make them feel “less than”.
There is, of course, no evidence of this. Evidence is dangerously lacking in much of the discourse around the “evils” and “divisiveness” of Critical Race Theory. The definitions themselves are even flawed, usually because, instead of simply quoting one or more of the creator’s of the theory, reporters and journalists (who, themselves, don’t understand what Critical Race Theory is) attempt to paraphrase or summarize its meaning. I’m not going to do that here, because it's racist and unuseful. I will, instead, let Dr. Derrick Bell’s own concise and clear definition of CRT speak for itself from his 1995 essay, “Who’s Afraid of Critical Race Theory” (with emphasis added):
...critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship, now about a decade old, a majority of whose members are both existentially people of color and ideologically committed to the struggle against racism, particularly as institutionalized in and by law. Those critical race theorists who are white are usually cognizant of and committed to the overthrow of their own racial privilege.
It seems fair to say that most critical race theorists are committed to a program of scholarly resistance, and most hope scholarly resistance will lay the groundwork for wide-scale resistance.
We believe that standards and institutions created by and fortifying white power ought to be resisted. Decontextualization, in our view, too often masks unregulated—even unrecognized—power. We insist, for example, that abstraction, put forth as "rational" or "objective" truth, smuggles the privileged choice of the privileged to depersonify their claims and then pass them off as the universal authority and the universal good. To counter such assumptions, we try to bring to legal scholarship an experientially grounded, oppositionally expressed, and transformatively aspirational concern with race and other socially constructed hierarchies.
If you can’t imagine school-aged children being taught what is described above, then you imagine correctly. Critical Race Theory is a theory studied by law students, adults, not primary or secondary school students. So what are right-wing pundits talking about when they use the term “critical race theory” if they aren’t talking about the actual theory? They are purposefully attempting to encompass and suppress discussion of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia within American history, especially in regards to recent history and current events. This includes culturally competent teaching, DEI training for young people and personnel, Black history after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and literally anything else that opposes American exceptionalism.
Newspapers and network news share tweets and snippets from press conferences from the likes of Tom Cotton, Margorie Green, and Hawley — none of which have the faintest idea of what Critical Race Theory actually is. They wear their willful ignorance with a badge of honor, that their minds have not been sullied by the evil ideas of these “communists”, these “traitors to our great nation.” To read the 1619 Project is to dignify the collection of essays as worth reading. Certainly no one can accuse the majority of its critics of that.
All this is true, and yet these voices are the one’s shaping the narrative around an academic theory of which the majority of its creators still live and work today. Often, Kimberle Crenshaw, Mari J. Matsuda, and Cheryl I. Harris get a quote or two in these articles, if anything at all, while angry parent groups are made to be the main characters.
But what about Black and brown students?
The war being waged is curious because of all the evidence that suggests the opposite of everything opponents of Critical Race Theory, Black and ethnic studies, cultural competency, and other more progressive teaching practices claim. There’s a long history that paints a grim picture regarding how our curriculums were created and how it affects all children, but especially those from marginalized communities. Residential schools, civics lessons created by Daughters of the Confederacy, the crackdown on academics during the McCarthy era, and the heteronormative, abstinence-focused sex eduation have all caused negative outcomes impacting everything from student’s self-esteem to teen pregnancy to academic performance. The reverse has also proven to be true. Students who receive education that reflects their identity perform better in school and have a higher sense of self-worth. Here’s how writer journalist Michael Harriott recently explained it on BNC News:
Harriott reminds us that the majority of the politicians stirring the ideological pot do not have children attending public schools, nor are those starting PACs to attract and fund conservatives to take over school boards across the country. They are using their platforms to put fear into the hearts of their base, and those parents are coming out in droves at their school board meetings to speak to something that they only understand through the protestations of far-right politicians and talking-heads.
But this is America, and therefore this is not the first time the ideological right has attempted to stop our historical truth from being taught in schools.
The 1968 San Francisco State College Student Strike was the first demonstration against the resistance of schools to offer ethnic studies in their curriculums. This five-month strike was the longest of its kind, with students and professors alike refusing to go to class until the college finally established a Department of African American Studies in the spring of 1969.
Another important event in the fight for inclusive and historically-accurate school curriculums is the 2010 battle in Arizona regarding one district’s Mexican-American studies program. A racist superintendent was offended by the remarks of a guest speaker when she said Republicans don’t care about Mexican-Americans. This superintendent then succeeded in stripping the school of it’s ability to continue it’s Mexican-American studies program (while still keeping intact the African-American and Indigenous Studies curriculums).
Finally in 2019, right here in my home state of North Carolina, concerned students petitioned the Forsyth/Winston-Salem Public School system to make African-American History mandatory for all students. Everyone who signed up to speak at the October 22nd meeting was in favor of the class, and yet the request failed 7-1.
If this country had expressed no resistance to incorporating the perspectives of Black and brown people into it’s civics classes and accurately framing the events that established this nation, then I would agree with them that Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project was nothing more than ideological propaganda. But that is not the case. Like every other institution in the United States, the public education system has resisted teaching the truth about this country long before school became mandatory in 1918.
So if those perpetuating fear and hate of critical approaches to American history are not invested in or even supportive of public schools (remember, many of these same individuals are staunchly pro-school choice), and the majority of students and families who do attend traditional public schools are Black and brown, than what is this really about?
I posit that it is two-fold. One, to oppress. Plain and simple, it is to oppress Black and brown children. It is cruel to demand schools not teach students the truth about what happened Black and brown people throughout the history of this country while they have to simultaneously live with the consequences of those crimes. There are videos all over TikTok created by students of color of them sitting in class while their teachers tell them lies about their history. And when they push back or attempt to correct them, they are treated like they are being disruptive and insubordinate. The gaslighting—on top of the police brutality, the threat of mass shootings, and the constant racial and sexual abuse that happens in many of our schools—is traumatizing our young people. Traumatized young people who have no hope in receiving the care they need to heal (because the same faction that hates inclusive and honest history hates free and affordable healthcare), they are primed for exploitation.
The second aim for the CRT conversation is the privatization of our school system and the destruction of teacher’s unions. The same candidates who are running on the “curriculum transparency” issue often run on the “school choice” and “anti-teachers union” issues. Those candidates are typically funded or otherwise supported by organizations who have been attempting to undermine the public school system for decades, like the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute. They are often behind public school defunding efforts, redistricting and the desire for a return to “neighborhood schools”, and vouchers for private and expanded deregulation of charter schools. If you think the public school system is a business now, just wait until it is literally run by CEOs.
The bottom line is this: while the target appears to be liberals or progressives or even Black academics, I believe that is only a smokescreen. The true target for the ridiculous yet powerful lies of the far-right are our children. It is psychological warfare against their identity and self-image. It is an attempt to sabotage their success and weaken their intellect through frustration and despair. It’s one more turn of the knife in the back of the next generation.
The solution, as Baldwin articulated in his essay “A Talk to Teachers”, is clear—it’s time to go for broke. It’s time to resist the unjust laws that are stacking up against us and walk in civil disobedience. If you are a caregiver, it is time to support those teachers and administrators who will teach the truth regardless of the consequences. Those in academia need to join with parents and teachers to offer them resources and to present strength in numbers at local school board and city council meetings. Those in the news media must take back the narrative from the loud yet ignorant far-right agitators by refusing to print direct quotes from politicians when they are also flat out lies. Instead, center the voices of Black and brown students, of Black and brown teachers, and of academics and experts in race relations and CRT to speak to issues, instead of people auditioning for Fox and Friends.
It’s time for anyone in the community who understands that “those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it”, must petition their civil servants, stand with and support teachers who are doing the right thing, and support the students who are caught in the crossfire of this senseless, selfish war of words. Why? Because, whatever anyone else says, our children, our ancestors, our history, and our stories are not a problem. White supremacy is, and will always be, the problem. And, come what may, we will be a part of dismantling it.