Oklahoma’s lawmakers want to whitewash its history
Gov. Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma has fired the latest salvo in the culture war. On May 7, Stitt signed a law effectively banning the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools. Idaho has passed a similar law, and several other states have introduced such legislation. These laws have more to do with pandering to the Republican base than they do with teaching children. The Oklahoma Department of Education has received no complaints about anyone teaching critical race theory. Nonetheless, Oklahoma Republicans believe they can earn political capital defending a celebratory version of American history.
The Oklahoma law prohibits schools “teaching or training students to believe certain divisive concepts,” including the idea that the United States is “fundamentally racist or sexist” and that individuals bear any responsibility for past actions committed by members of their race or sex. Most pernicious of all is a sweeping injunction against teaching any concept that makes any student “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” Given the highly subjective nature of “distress,” this clause could be used by school boards, administrators, and even parents to veto any content they dislike.
Critical race theory became the bête noire of the far-right when President Trump condemned it in September 2020, but anger over the concept had been growing since the New York Times published the 1619 Project, a series of thought-provoking essays addressing the importance of slavery and segregation in American history. If the Oklahoma law is any indication, opponents of critical race theory have little understanding of it.
Legal scholars coined the term “critical race theory” in the 1970’s to address what they saw as the failure of civil rights legislation to achieve racial equality. The crux of the problem, these scholars believed, lay in defining racism solely as discriminatory acts perpetrated by individuals or groups instead of seeing it as a systemic problem embedded in institutions, policies and society itself. “What good was the Fair Housing Act,” they asked, if economic inequality meant African Americans could not afford to buy homes?
Opponents of critical race theory acknowledge that discrimination happens but deny the existence of systemic racism. President Biden’s April 29 address to Congress and Sen. Tim Scott’s (R-S.C.) response illustrate these two perspectives. “We have a real chance to root out systemic racism that plagues America,” Biden declared, acknowledging that racism is a structural problem. “I have experienced the pain of discrimination,” Scott responded. “I know what it feels like to be pulled over for no reason, to be followed around a store while I’m shopping,” but he added, “America is not a racist country.” For Scott and his fellow Republicans, it seems that systemic racism does not exist.
Critical race theory does not unequivocally condemn the United States as a “racist country.” According to Kimberlé Crenshaw, one of its earliest proponents, the theory is “an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.” Note that Crenshaw says “an approach,” not “the approach.” It is one of many ways to study history. My own department requires that introductory courses teach students to “distinguish among multiple perspectives that shape interpretations of the past.” Critical race theory does not discount all other historical perspectives, nor does it insist that American history become a litany of grievances compiled by marginalized groups. But it does insist that race is an important analytical category for interpreting events.
Contrary to the fear expressed in the Oklahoma law, critical race theory does not seek to make anyone feel guilty about their behavior or that of their ancestors. In fact, the theory deemphasizes individual actions in favor of examining structural issues. By focusing on the alleged distress “divisive concepts” might cause students, however, the law illustrates a tendency of conservatives to personalize discussions of race and gender. “I am not a racist or a misogynist,” the argument goes, “I am not to blame.” Acknowledging the link between past and present, not encouraging feelings of guilt, is the goal.
Both the timing of the Oklahoma law and its insistence that the present generation not be held responsible for the sins of its predecessors are poignant and ironic. May 31 will mark the centenary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, a violent uprising during which white mobs murdered as many as 300 African Americans and destroyed the Greenwood neighborhood, dubbed the “Black Wallstreet” because of its prosperity. Pressure to pay reparations to the descendants of the victims has been mounting. Until recently, most Americans were not even aware this atrocity had occurred. Eighty-three percent of Oklahomans did not hear of the massacre until they were adults, a compelling argument for why it must be included in history classes.
The most absurd aspect of the Oklahoma law is its insistence that educators do nothing to cause students “discomfort.” During my 35-year teaching career, I have repeatedly told students that part of my job is to make them uncomfortable with their cherished assumptions, not to upset them, but to help them grow. Discussing race and gender in these fraught times makes everyone uncomfortable, but painful truths will not go away because we ignore them. Nor can inequality and injustices in the present day be overcome without studying their deep historic roots. Being unified is a good thing, but not if it comes at the expense of ignoring any part of our history, no matter how unpleasant. Only by facing our past — the good, the bad and the ugly — can we move together into a brighter future. Critical race theory is neither an exercise in white guilt nor an iconoclastic attack on American heritage. It is a call to listen to voices that have been silent, ignored and suppressed for too long.
Tom Mockaitis is professor of history and DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”
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