A June 12, 2021 rally in Leesburg, Virginia against “critical race theory” which participants wrongly believe is being taught in schools.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images
The history of racial progress in the United States almost always follows the pattern of “two steps forward, one step back.”
The abolition of slavery and the short-lived Reconstruction Era ushered in a century of Jim Crow segregation. The integration of public schools triggered the creation of private “segregation academies.” The election of President Barack Obama unleashed a wave of racially-motivated voter suppression laws.
We are in the midst of such a backlash, one that threatens to eradicate decades of progress by warping our view of the nation’s past — including all those previous backlashes — and thwart our future progress toward an equitable, multicultural society.
Those very terms, in fact — “equitable” and “multicultural” — are the principal hobgoblins of the movement to preserve white supremacy by distorting history and presenting racial gaps as the result of ‘merit” and “hard work” instead of systemic oppression.
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After the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, the resulting economic collapse and the brazen murder of George Floyd laid bare the racial fault lines in our health care, economic and criminal justice institutions, support for racial justice reached an all-time high. Congress and state legislatures focused on policing reform. Corporations partnered with racial equity organizations, including the National Urban League. The 1619 Project, the New York Times initiative to reframe American history by centering the legacy of slavery, earned Nikole Hannah-Jones a Pulitzer Prize for commentary.
In the 20th century, white Americans threatened by the encroachment of racial equality erected Confederate monuments in their town squares. In the 21st century, they restrict what students can read and learn about American history.
In just over two years, policy makers at the state, local and federal level have introduced more than 600 bills, resolutions, executive orders, opinion letters, statements and other measures to limit discussion of racism and discrimination. Many of these rely on and perpetuate the confusion surrounding critical race theory, an academic concept that examines the ways in which the law and legal institutions reinforce racial inequality.
Hoping to ride the same current of racial resentment and white grievance that propelled Donald Trump into the White House, politicians have wielded the term so broadly as to inhibit nearly any discussion of race in the classroom.
In Illinois, state Reps. Adam Niemerg and Blaine Wilhour in January 2022 introduced The Parental Access and Curriculum Transparency Act, which would prohibit curricula that suggests that individuals bear responsibility for past actions by members or their race or sex. Rep. Tom Weber introduced an amendment to the Illinois School Code that went further, banning discussion of systemic or institutional racism or any content that causes race-related “guilt, anguish” or “psychological distress.”
The key to the true motivation behind these efforts lies in another provision of Weber’s bill — little discussed but breathtaking in its implication — to ban the suggestion that “meritocracy” and “a hard work ethic” were “created” as tools of oppression. In effect, the provision would stifle any suggestion that racial gaps in wealth or income, educational attainment, home ownership, civic engagement or political representation are the result of anything other than merit and hard work.
The true causes of these racial gaps — discriminatory hiring practices, persistent redlining, bias in home appraisals, inequitable school funding, voter suppression and — are evidence of systemic and institutional racism, which educators would not be permitted to acknowledge.
A false mythology
This movement to suppress history is rooted in the “lost cause,” a false version of history promoted by white Southerners to erase the horrors of slavery and justify legal segregation. According to this mythology, Black Americans had been content to be enslaved and were overwhelmed by the responsibilities of freedom. Abolition and reconstruction threw society into chaos, and Jim Crow was a necessary correction to restore the natural order.
Lost cause mythology persisted throughout the civil rights era, falsely labeling the martyrs who bled and died to end segregation and secure voting rights as “outside agitators” disrupting a way of life that was cherished by all who lived under it.
In 2023, the lost cause movement doesn’t pretend that Black Americans are content to live under the system of oppression. It pretends the system of oppression doesn’t exist.
Weber’s bill fortunately expired at the end of the last legislative session, along with Niemerg and Wilhour’s. But least 252 measures nationwide have been enacted. Even jurisdictions that don’t succumb to the backlash are affected by those that do, as with Florida’s supposed role in forcing changes to the College Board’s AP African American History course.
Tens of millions of Americans were raised on the lost cause myth. If we do not confront the so-called anti-CRT movement, tens of millions more will be raised on an even more insidious myth.
Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League. He served as mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002 and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and the Georgetown University Law Center.
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