Moves to silence critical race theory have only amplified its virtues
Recently, a number of states have passed laws banning critical race theory — or what legislators with willful ignorance or outright malice misspeak of as critical race theory — as well as teaching about past and present racism in its systemic form.
As a woman of color committed to antiracism, I am delighted. And the reason for my delight can be found in the very history legislators seek to forbid.
One of the greatest titans of American history is the abolitionist, male women’s suffrage activist, and defender of civil rights for all peoples: Frederick Douglass. When he was a boy, the enslaved Douglass asked his mistress to teach him to read, which she did until the day she proudly shared his progress with her husband. As Douglass recounts in “My Bondage and My Freedom”:
“Master Hugh was amazed at the simplicity of his spouse, and, probably for the first time, he unfolded to her the true philosophy of slavery, and the peculiar rules necessary to be observed by masters and mistresses, in the management of their human chattels. Mr. [Hugh] Auld promptly forbade continuance of her instruction; telling her, in the first place, that the thing itself was unlawful; that it was also unsafe, and could only lead to mischief.”
Assessing his master’s words, Douglass said:
“Very well,” thought I; “knowledge unfits a child to be a slave.” From that moment I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom… The very determination which he expressed to keep me in ignorance, only rendered me the more resolute in seeking intelligence.”
There are times when the path to a nation that truly has liberty and justice for all seems indiscernible, when those committed to realizing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream wonder how to make it come true. Well, now we know. As Douglass taught us, the knowledge that is forbidden to us is the knowledge that frees us. The instruction that we are told is unsafe, leads only to mischief and that is being made unlawful — that instruction is liberating. It offers the direct pathway to freedom. The proof of the revolutionary power of education that examines racism with candor and courage lies in the determination of those who seek to keep our children in ignorance. And that very determination should render us all the more resolute in seeking intelligence for them and for ourselves.
Think about it: If our children don’t know what systemic racism is, they may think that George Floyd’s murder was the result of — as a white adult described it to me — the actions of “one bad officer.” And they might then think that justice is served when that officer — Derek Chauvin — is removed from the force and convicted.
But if they are taught about the event through the lens of systemic racism, then they will learn that Chauvin had eighteen complaints against him — that after a half dozen, a dozen, and then still more grievances — someone other than Chauvin, likely multiple people, kept him on the force. They learn that someone looked at Chauvin’s record and decided to give him the responsibility of training other officers. They learn that Floyd was at least the seventh person Chauvin choked or knelt on: Three of them, including Floyd, were Black, two were Latino, one was Native American and the races of the other two are unknown. They learn that Chauvin is only now facing charges for a 2017 incident in which the federal government argues he hit a Black 14-year-old in the head with a flashlight so brutally the boy needed stitches, and then knelt on his neck and back for several minutes — even though the boy, like Floyd, was handcuffed, prone and unresisting. They will learn that other officers failed to treat this as a crime and while police chose not to take action to get Chauvin off the force, let alone keep him out of a position of authority, the police union did step in after all that inaction finally led to a murder — to spend $1 million on his criminal defense.
When children learn about systemic racism, they understand that just stripping Chauvin of his badge or even his freedom isn’t enough to achieve justice because there was an entire system that functioned to condone Floyd’s murder, that tried to grant his murderer impunity, and that, if not transformed, whose machinery will inevitably grind others to death.
You can’t change a system you don’t know exists. And that’s why these legislators are enacting these “peculiar rules.” They don’t want our children to know. They don’t want things to change.
But their plan backfired.
This time last year, systemic racism was an obscure concept. Thanks to the legislators banning it, it’s now a topic of popular conversation.
Looking back as a free man, a renowned leader, a man whose global repute was second only to that of Abraham Lincoln, Douglass mused, “In learning to read, therefore, I am not sure that I do not owe quite as much to the opposition of my master as to the kindly assistance of my amiable mistress.”
In learning about how racism has and continues to function — and, thereby, how to destroy it — I am not sure that we do not owe quite as much to the opposition of our legislators as we do to the theorists, historians and teachers brave enough not to place feelings over facts.
Shannon Prince is a lawyer at Boies Schiller Flexner and a legal commentator. She is the author of “Tactics for Racial Justice: Building an Antiracist Organization and Community.”