Editor’s column: America has too little education on race, not too much

June 25, 2021 5:00 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

When I got out of college in 1987, I realized I was an educated idiot. 

For the past five years, I’d crammed my head with a lot of facts and knew about the politics of Latin America and the Soviet Union, political theory going back to Plato and Aristotle, the plays of Shakespeare and bawdy Restoration drama, but I knew, for instance, not one thing about Black American writing. 

That wasn’t a subject taught in my high school, where we read Steinbeck and Faulkner and Cather. There may have been a class in Black literature at UT and I don’t remember it, but then again, there may not have been.

I decided to fill gaps in my knowledge and began reading Maya Angelou and James Baldwin and Wallace Thurman. As I read, I wanted to learn more about Black Americans and their history. I read the poetry of Langston Hughes and when I lived in Joplin, Missouri, I went to see the house in which Hughes grew up.  I read biographies of W.E.B. Dubois, Madame C.J. Walker, the boxer Jack Johnson and I read “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” I learned about the all-Black Buffalo Soldiers who served in the U.S. Army after the Civil War.

By no means is my knowledge of Black American literature or culture exhaustive but my self-education project taught me so much. It opened my eyes to a large segment of America I’d essentially been blind to. James Baldwin wrote beautifully but was equally important for his takes on American politics and political structures. I learned about huge chunks of history I’d not been exposed to.

I say all this as an argument for the importance of providing a better elementary and secondary education than I had and to address the hullabaloo about critical race theory. 

Critical race theory has become, in less than six months, one of the far right’s most repeated talking points, a drum conservative politicians pound daily.

To wit, Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn posted on social media Tuesday, “Critical race theory is a leftist tactic that’s meant to divide our country and pit Americans against each other.” And the Tennessee legislature is one of a half dozen state legislatures that have passed laws banning the teaching of critical race theory. More than a dozen other states are considering banning it from K-12 classrooms. 

Right-wing politicians have made critical race theory a prime talking point for months, but ironically, one of the tenets of CRT is to challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice.

Critical race theory is an academic concept that was developed more than 40 years ago. The core concept is that racism isn’t only about individual biases or prejudices but it is also embedded in America’s legal systems — and it doesn’t take a highly ‘woke’ person to acknowledge the truth inherent in that. 

You don’t have to be a civil rights scholar to realize that America’s early agricultural success was due to a huge amount of slave labor, and in America, slaves were only African or Black. 

You don’t have to be a scholar of critical race theory to find the practice of redlining in real estate appalling. 

But even accepting that those issues are factual and not just theory, critical race theory isn’t taught in Tennessee public schools. It’s taught in some law schools and has applicability in several academic fields, including education, political science and American studies. 

What’s also not taught in Tennessee schools are some very big events in American history. Many Americans are only now learning about how a Tulsa neighborhood known as the “Black Wall Street” was wiped out by a white mob in 1921: Who among us learned that in high school history? 

I learned in Tennessee history that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a great Civil War cavalry officer but didn’t learn he was a slave trader and heard nothing about the Ft. Pillow Massacre that took place in Tennessee.

Ironically, one of the tenets of critical race theory is to “challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice.” 

Critical race theory or discussion of race in America isn’t, as Sen. Blackburn says, dividing America. Unwillingness to openly talk about our still-young country’s past, as well as current, racial issues, is maintaining racial divisions. Teachers shouldn’t be afraid to be frank about the shameful way Black people (and Native Americans, and Japanese) have been treated in our country, much less teach classic literature with racial themes — think “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

At 57, I’m still educating myself and making up for the lack of education I received about America’s history and its intersection with race. We must do better and cannot let far-right politicians hijack the educational system to maintain divisions in our society with a manufactured crisis over CRT.

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J. Holly McCall
J. Holly McCall

Holly McCall has been a fixture in Tennessee media and politics for decades. She covered city hall for papers in Columbus, Ohio and Joplin, Missouri before returning to Tennessee with the Nashville Business Journal. Holly brings a deep wealth of knowledge about Tennessee’s political processes and players and likes nothing better than getting into the weeds of how political deals are made.