OPINION: Why I, a white guy, am no big critic of critical race theory

Before a Cobb County of Education board meeting begins, Sandra Davis, a Cobb County media specialist, from left, and Janet Arnold Savage, center, debate with Leroy Emkin, right, a Cobb resident who has three children who went through the Georgia public education system. Teachers, parents and local residents gathered to voice their opinions on critical race theory and what Cobb County teaching and the reviews initiated by the school board on June 10, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)
Caption
Before a Cobb County of Education board meeting begins, Sandra Davis, a Cobb County media specialist, from left, and Janet Arnold Savage, center, debate with Leroy Emkin, right, a Cobb resident who has three children who went through the Georgia public education system. Teachers, parents and local residents gathered to voice their opinions on critical race theory and what Cobb County teaching and the reviews initiated by the school board on June 10, 2021. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Last year, Republicans were bewailing, almost from a script, the idea of “wokeness,” which according to the dictionary is a “state of being aware, especially of social problems such as racism and inequality.”

Of course, the definition of “woke” is in the eye of the beholder. The GOP version of the term was not an earnest person trying to right wrongs or understand societal inequities. It was more a caricature of a shrill, hectoring, humorless lib nattering on about some perceived slight. It’s kind of a new and improved cousin of “politically correct.”

This year, the going outrage was “cancel culture,” of wokesters publicly calling out and spanking someone to enforce the emerging social norms. Our own Gov. Brian Kemp happily jumped on the cancel culture bandwagon in April to call out Major League Baseball for pulling the All-Star Game from Atlanta because of Georgia’s new voting legislation. It was smart politics, an effort to work his way back into the Trumpian universe.

Now, the conservative indignation machine has shifted to “critical race theory,” which is seemingly everywhere all the time. I’m not sure I had ever heard of critical race theory until last month, even though the term has been around for decades and helped sink Bill Clinton’s 1993 nomination of Lani Guinier to the Justice Department.

CRT is an academic theory that says race is baked into all aspects of our existence, be it social life or in legal, business and political frameworks. In Atlanta Journal-Constitution story files, the term has appeared 33 times in the past four decades, with 24 of those mentions in the past month. Fox News has been beating the drum loudly, mentioning it 1,300 times in the past 100 days, according to Media Matters.

Things are moving at a rapid pace. As a white guy, I can barely keep up with what I’m supposed to be angry about.

Ron Tripodo, center, yells at the Cherokee County School Board in Canton on May 20, 2021, after they passed a resolution to ban teaching critical race theory and then adjourned the meeting. Tripodo was upset that the language in the resolution was ambiguous. (Credit: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Caption
Ron Tripodo, center, yells at the Cherokee County School Board in Canton on May 20, 2021, after they passed a resolution to ban teaching critical race theory and then adjourned the meeting. Tripodo was upset that the language in the resolution was ambiguous. (Credit: Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Governor Shotgun, who is better than me at gauging this emotion, last month jumped into the newest cause and urged the state’s Board of Education to take “immediate steps to ensure that critical race theory and its dangerous ideology do not take root in our state standards and curriculum.”

The specter of critical race theory landed hard last month in Cherokee County, where a roomful of angry (mostly white) folks came to express their abject horror at their kids being indoctrinated with this “extreme and dangerous ideology.” Their fear is that teachers will be heaping psychological baggage on their young charges, painting white people as exploiters, colonizers and all around meanies.

Next thing you know, the kids won’t just be carrying their books home from school, they’ll also be lugging their newly created white guilt.

The school district tried to push back, saying it was simply hiring an administrator to oversee “social and emotion learning” and “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

Cherokee’s school superintendent, Brian Hightower, told a crowd in a meeting that students needed “social and emotional learning” because of increasing rates of depression and suicide. Some in the crowd weren’t buying it. They hissed. They heckled. To them, the program was nothing but a Trojan horse to sneak in racial scapegoating and resentment.

This month, the state school board fended off the looming threat of critical race theory. They voted 11-2 to say schools ought not teach kids that anyone is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive,” is responsible for past acts by folks who looked like them, and that no one “should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

As it turns out, it doesn’t seem like there was any overt effort by many school districts (or even any) to go all CRT. But you can never underestimate the desire of those in political circles to attack a problem that doesn’t exist, especially if it will buy them support — or at least get the mob to look the other way.

True, there can be instances where the woke academia-intelligencia industrial complex can be insufferable, as evidenced by Dr. Aruna Khilanani, a shrink who in April addressed the impressionable minds at the Yale School of Medicine’s Child Study Center.

She told the online audience that discussing race with white people is useless.

“We are asking a demented, violent predator who thinks that they are a saint or a superhero to accept responsibility,” she said. “It ain’t going to happen. They have five holes in their brain.”

And she didn’t stop there.

“They suck you dry,” she said. “There are no good apples out there. White people make my blood boil.” Khilanani went on to say she has had fantasies about shooting down white people and then walking away with a “bounce in my step.”

Reading that, even I felt a bit micro-aggressed, although my white privilege quickly shook it off.

Rick Cox, who has a son in the Cherokee County school system, holds signs outside the school board chambers in Canton before a packed-to-capacity meeting on May 20, 2021. (Credit: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Caption
Rick Cox, who has a son in the Cherokee County school system, holds signs outside the school board chambers in Canton before a packed-to-capacity meeting on May 20, 2021. (Credit: Ben Gray for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

But let’s not kid ourselves. The reality is that race is indeed embedded in some way in just about every aspect of life — work, worship, politics, the legal system, who we hang with. So it really shouldn’t be so terrible that teachers delve into the subject. It’s probably even healthy.

Obviously, there’s a lot to unpack and not every sixth-grade social studies teacher or high school history teacher is up to the task or is equal in their abilities to tell a fair and proper narrative of history or race relations. But who is?

In 2019, The New York Times published The 1619 Project, which according to the newspaper was an attempt to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

However, a collection of leading scholars criticized the work, saying there was a “displacement of historical understanding by ideology.”

Still, there needs to be a reality check as to where we are and how we got here. I saw one study that said most high school students don’t even know that slavery was the root cause of the Civil War. In fact, nearly half of the 1,700 students surveyed picked the answer “to protest taxes on imported goods.”

So, it seems that we’re not even making the slam dunks of U.S. history, of telling our next generation what has happened and how we got to where we are.

But just maybe there has been some movement. When I moved to Georgia three decades ago, a friend brought me by the historical marker near the arch at the University of Georgia. It spoke about the “War of Northern Aggression.”

The last time I looked at the sign, perhaps a year ago, it had changed to the “War for Southern Independence.”

I suppose that’s progress.

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