In an appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Leah Wright Rigueur, a history professor at Brandeis University, provided much-needed clarification over Republicans’ ongoing hissy fit about critical race theory.
“What you’re hearing now is a debate supposedly over critical race theory, but that’s not actually what we’re debating. Critical race theory is, in a lot of ways, just a niche section of academia that deals with kind of using laws, institutions, policies to understand how racism, how inequality, how discrimination has been perpetuated,” she explained. “It’s been taught in upper-level seminars, usually third-year electives in law schools. But, certainly, my children are not learning Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell, Imani Perry and the like in their public school educations.”
Indeed, it is evident that, rather than the academic discipline they claim to oppose, Republicans are railing at something much bigger and fundamental. At a time when white grievance and resentment has taken over the GOP, their feigned outrage boils down to a primal scream: Stop reminding us of the past. Stop telling us that we’ve done something wrong. Stop exploring why racial divides persist.
The right now equates accuracy and truth with anti-Americanism. They fear that if children are taught about race and history, they will come away with a negative impression of America. The notion that our racial failings — as well our attempts to overcome racism — are all part of the American story appears to be beyond these protesters’ comprehension.
Take the celebration of Juneteenth, America’s latest national holiday. As Rigueur pointed out, Juneteenth commemorates both government failures and the resilience of enslaved people who lived to see and fight for their freedom.
In their resentment toward immigrants, “elites,” urbanites and anyone who might challenge their account of America, Republicans cling to a narrative in which racism is confined to the past. If they acknowledge that racism still affects our institutions and our economic and social structure, they might have to reform them. They might have to acknowledge there has been and continues to be injustice that we are all responsible for addressing.
In their willful historical ignorance, the party attempts to substitute imaginary problems for real ones and thereby cement the status quo. In refusing to recognize the history of Jim Crow, the persistent attempts to reduce Black voting power through gerrymandering and post-Shelby voter suppression, Republicans deny there is any problem to fix — except for the entirely fictional one of “massive voting fraud,” which multiple lawsuits and investigations found to be baseless.
Ultimately, the Republican Party is fighting a losing battle. Research, education and culture will swamp desperate efforts to enforce historical nihilism.
A free society’s great advantage against authoritarian know-nothingism is the overwhelming power of freely dispersed information. The Make America Great Again set may be able to hide themselves from reality, be it in the form of science or historical fact. They might be able to persuade a small segment of the population to participate in this alternate universe. But they have no ability to end the flow of ideas and facts as they course through our national bloodstream. Teachers will keep teaching. Books and films and plays will keep coming. And communities will keep alive shared memories.
The battle over history is really a battle over the present. It’s a contest between MAGA efforts to reinforce, and even widen, Whites’ advantages, and those who recognize the American idea as an ongoing attempt to create the more perfect union.
“Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments,” President Biden said when he signed the bill that made Juneteenth a holiday. “They embrace them. Great nations don’t walk away, they come to terms with the mistakes they’ve made.” We embrace historical facts so that the great American experiment in self-government can endure.
Image Credits: Evan Vucci/AP