Whatever "critical race theory" is, fears about it are easy to understand. It is seen as a mechanism for impugning the country and all white people for at least passive racism, for political indoctrination and inducing racial guilt, and for gaining power over not just education but all society.
This interpretation is strengthened insofar as "critical race theory" is supported by the politically correct crowd and enjoys camouflaging and euphemizing by school administrators, teacher unions, and other agents of the political left.
There are at least two problems with the advocates of "critical race theory."
First they mistake racism and slavery as unique characteristics of the United States, conferring shame uniquely on this country. But racism and slavery were, and are, worldwide phenomena afflicting nearly all countries, races, and ethnic groups. Indeed, the Africans enslaved in the United States were first enslaved and sold by other Africans.
That doesn't diminish the atrocity. But it transfers the guilt from any one nation to humanity itself.
Second, the advocates of "critical race theory," as well as those of the "1619 Project" of The New York Times, mistake the great theme of American history, which is not racism and other forms of oppression but rather the struggle against oppression, the pursuit of democratization, the most extensive democratization attempted anywhere.
Yes, American independence and its Declaration did not democratize everything at a stroke. But they threw off the mightiest monarchy of the era and the divine right of kings – a truly revolutionary accomplishment – and set the stage for progress throughout the world.
Abraham Lincoln, who may have understood the Declaration better than anyone and devoted his political life to its principles, explained it to an audience in Springfield, Illinois, in 1857:
"I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.
"They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal – equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.' This they said, and this meant.
"They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth – that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon.
“They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all – constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.”
For decades after the country's founding, restricting slavery was usually the foremost political issue. It developed into the Civil War, where liberty was won and then betrayed by Reconstruction and then won again by the civil rights movement.
Another war, the First World War, facilitated the emancipation of women in the 1920s, vindicating another great struggle, much neglected by history.
All this took time, and of course there remain unfair racial and gender disparities, but they are the subjects of constant political clamor. No one claims perfection for the country even as advocates of "critical race theory" proclaim the country's eternal taint.
This history can be taught comprehensively and honestly, the good and the bad, without mistaking the country's direction and its leading place in the ascent of man. The heroism and sacrifices made and the brutal and heartbreaking defeats suffered and then overcome on behalf of progress here are astounding.
If taught fairly, without pursuing political gain or revenge, this can only inspire students with love of country and a desire to contribute to that progress, to heed the Union general and U.S. senator, Carl Schurz:
“My country, right or wrong. If right, to be kept right – and if wrong, to be set right.”
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.