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History professor examines the culture war over teaching our past [column] – LNP | LancasterOnline

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Dennis Downey
Dennis Downey
But race is the child of racism, not the father.
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Between the World and Me” (2015)
Perhaps you have heard that around the country they are banning and burning books.
From Virginia to Indiana to Texas, and even in Pennsylvania, self-styled cultural warriors have descended on legislatures, school boards and the public square to express their grievances and outrage. They often object to public health mandates as government “overreach” that tramples on individual freedom and Americanness. Elected officials are ridiculed, harassed and sometimes they and their families’ lives have been threatened. These tactics are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451” (titled, wrote its author, for “the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns”).
According to PEN America, an advocacy organization that champions the freedom to write, 54 bills have been proposed in 24 state legislatures to prohibit the teaching of “divisive concepts” in classrooms and training halls. One state legislator in Texas has proposed a list of 850 titles to be excluded from public school classrooms. And in Virginia, members of the Spotsylvania County school board have identified publications for incineration. Virginia’s recent gubernatorial contest was awash in accusations of public outrage over titles that addressed sexual and racial themes thought by some parents to be unsuitable for children and young adults.
Classic works of literature like Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” frequently are on the hit list, as are standard works of history and biography.
One Pennsylvania public library has prohibited the circulation of my 1991 book, “No Crooked Death,” which deals with the subject of lynching, since its publication 30 years ago.
In nearby Central York School District, officials emailed teachers a list of banned books, movies and other educational materials, only to rescind the directive after a vociferous student protest gained national attention, including coverage in The New York Times. “I was ready to go to battle,” said one 17-year-old student organizer. “I read the first sentence and that was enough.” Any sense of age-appropriate selections gets lost in the vitriol.
Elsewhere, parents have rebuked school officials for an overindulgence in sensitivity training, suicide prevention counseling, and expenditures on mental health and disability services for at-risk students. Supports for LGBTQ students remain a point of contention in school districts around the country.
Have we surrendered a sense of equilibrium and compassion, and the much-lauded principle of a student-centered education? Surveying this cultural donnybrook, I wonder, like Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”
What is called critical race theory has emerged as the chief target of contempt.
Now a quarter-century old, the concept can be misunderstood or misrepresented by both proponents and opponents. Either side is prone to exaggerating its precise meaning and full import. The phrase is often misapplied or distorted for ideological and partisan advantage.
Made popular by Derrick Bell of Harvard Law School, and embraced by legal scholars, literary critics and social scientists, critical race theory is very much in vogue on college campuses. A veritable cottage industry of publications has given the concept wider circulation in nonacademic discourse.
At first glance, there is nothing particularly novel or unsettling about the notion of critical race theory. It is a perspective, or a framework if you will, that places race and racism at the center of a historical and contemporary understanding of American national development. Furthermore, what is called “race” is understood in critical race theory to be a social construct, not a biological determinant, that is deeply embedded in American history and institutions.
As Harvard’s Donald Yacovone, the author of the forthcoming book “Teaching White Supremacy,” noted recently: “White supremacy precedes the origins of the United States. Every aspect of social interaction, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, was dominated by white identity, and white supremacy became an expression of American identity.”
Knowing this, critical race theory maintains, it is important to understand the experiences and perspectives of people of color.
Good scholarship, like good social dialogue, requires that we listen to each other and be honest and forthright about how racism and prejudice continue to shape American life.
Slavery, Jim Crow segregation, the denial of voting rights, and the wholesale violence of lynching and anti-Black riots are true historical realities that cannot be dismissed.
The gruesome, barbarous and stylized hanging or burning alive of individuals, who were denied due process, was commonplace, as was the unwillingness to prosecute the perpetrators of such injustices. They are part of our shared past that speaks to our present moment.
There is a long litany of recent incidents, none more glaring than the police killing of George Floyd, that has brought critical race theory into the forefront of public debate.
In the ebb and flow of commentary, one hears much about structural and institutional racism, economic and health disparities, problems of policing and community relations, and the criminal justice system and the carceral state. Each issue has deep historical roots and a contemporary resonance that must be considered to achieve a fuller and more complete understanding of the American past and present. In the end, that should be the goal and the object of shared concern. I have learned that much in 40 years of teaching and writing about historical topics.
In my reading, critical race theory does not dismiss or discount the travails of other peoples who have experienced discrimination and prejudice.
It does not seek to replace the deep harm done to other groups with some preferential option for African Americans and other people of color.
Instead, it provides a perspective on the enduring problem of racism and a reality in American life. For all its shortcomings, critical race theory exposes a deep vein of inequity and inequality in our national history. It sometimes makes people uncomfortable, and therein is the rub.
There is a well-financed campaign to banish critical race theory from public discussions about racism and its legacy. This effort devalues the lived experiences of African Americans and other marginalized groups.
The study of history, in the classroom or the public square, should seek neither condemnation nor celebration, but honest understanding. Otherwise, the bright embers of ignorance and intolerance will exhaust decency and our fragile democracy.
Dennis B. Downey, Ph.D., is professor emeritus of history at Millersville University. His most recent publication is “Pennhurst and the Struggle for Disability Rights” (Penn State Press 2020).
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