Glenn Youngkin, the new governor of Virginia, announced during his first day in office this month that he is banning discussion of critical race theory in his state. Many expect him to forbid discussion of the impact of viruses in causing the coronavirus next.
Rather than running away from it, the Democratic Party leadership must embrace critical race theory as the basis for educating our young people – and many of their parents – to overcome the divisions that are tearing this country apart and paving the way for a right-wing takeover. America’s culture warriors subscribe to the idea that ignorance is bliss, that is until Covid kills you or a member of your family. Their efforts to suppress history plays a similar role, enforcing ignorance, maintaining the status quo, and suppressing efforts to create a just society.
The critical race hobgoblin demands that our children remain uneducated and ignorant to keep them from feeling guilty about the ingrained nature of racism in America. Or the genocide committed by our brave forefathers against the Indigenous people who lived here before Columbus arrived. Or sexism. Or the destruction of the planet.
Perhaps guilt is not really the worry. Knowledge is power, and the more people learn the more likely they may be to fight for the kind of change that will benefit the majority and restrict the wealth and power of America’s elite. Some of the most positive signs in American society flow from the awareness more common in the younger generation than the older. Crazy ideas like people of all races and ethnicities are actually people with more in common than not and God is unlikely to smite LGBTQ, transgender, or gender non-conforming people and those who exercise reproductive choices.
Critical race theory teaches that the wealth and power of the United States today flows from the enslavement of Africans and the destruction of the Indigenous communities who lived in what became the United States. Historians conclude that before Columbus arrived in 1492, the Indigenous population of North America was between four and 18 million people. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz estimates that the population of the entire western hemisphere was 100 million people at the end of the 15th century, including 15 million in North America. Most were farmers who lived in towns, not the savages of racist Hollywood movies. They were healthy and had enough to eat. Today that population is estimated between 2.5 to 6 million, many living in poverty on reservations and in urban ghettos. Murder, disease, and forced assimilation of the Indigenous people are the result of colonization and the imposition of Western civilization. The other term applicable to this history is genocide.
Settlers and colonialists transformed the former Indigenous lands into slave plantations throughout the Confederacy, most notably in the cotton-producing states of the Mississippi River Valley. About 600,000 Africans were stolen from their homelands and brought to what became the United States. By the start of the Civil War there were four million enslaved people in the U.S., about one eighth of the total population.
The Cotton Kingdom was the engine that powered the U.S. economy from the Revolutionary War to the late 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. America’s economic success was based on slave labor, and slaves were the developing nation’s most valuable assets. The wealth created on the cotton plantations enriched every aspect of the U.S. economy, from banking to transportation to the nascent manufacturing industry.
Slave labor created the wealth that enabled America to become the rising economic and military power it had become by the early 20th century and remains today. The wealth that allowed the U.S. to emerge successfully from the First and Second World Wars was the product of slave labor. The standard of living enjoyed by every American who does not live in poverty today includes the ongoing benefits of 250 years of slavery.
The lessons of history should not be reduced to issues of personal guilt. Relatively few of today’s Americans are descendants of slavers or the traitors who fought for the South during the Civil War. But all Americans have a stake in this country’s future history. America will be made great – at last – only if its people understand its history and begin to take the steps necessary to overcome the violence of the past to create a stable democracy that reflects the rights and interests of the majority.
This country’s history informs the current debate about voting rights and restrictions. America’s political institutions are deformed by the exclusion of tens of millions of people from the opportunity to participate in the creation of policy and the selection of leaders through the vote. Struggles over the right to vote have been a dominant feature of American politics since before the Civil War.
The great abolitionist Frederick Douglass fought against the dominant forces in white America, including the majority in the North who opposed secession and slavery, in that order, but opposed voting rights for freed Blacks and those who would be freed after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. Douglass insisted that African Americans could never be free if they were excluded from political power. In 1866 he opposed the Fourteenth Amendment because it did not provide for Black suffrage. He said, “I looked upon suffrage for the Negro as the only measure which would prevent him from being thrust back into slavery.” Douglass celebrated when the Fifteenth Amendment was passed three years later.
While today the Republican Party is leading the assault on Black suffrage, the Democrats played that role from before the Civil War up until the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. The Democrats reviled President Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus” and warned the country that the end of slavery would empower Black rapists. Conservative Democratic politicians dominated the South and opposed civil rights legislation until Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon embraced the racist “Southern Strategy” in response to the gains of the civil rights movement to move the South into the Republican Party in the 1960s.
Much of the violence in the South during Reconstruction was directed against the Black vote. More Blacks were elected to political office in the first years after the Civil War than at any time up to very recent years. (When Raphael Warnock was elected from Georgia last year, he became the first African American elected to the U.S. Senate from a southern state since Reconstruction.) White supremacists carried out horrific massacres of Blacks attempting to gain and hold political power in Memphis and New Orleans in 1866.
When Lincoln was assassinated, his pro-slavery successor Democrat Andrew Johnson did everything he could to reverse Reconstruction and facilitate racist violence against the Black communities of the former slave states. General Ulysses Grant, who had successfully lobbied Lincoln to embrace Black troops in the Union Army, sent troops to the South to suppress racist violence and protect Black communities. Taking office in 1869, President Grant mobilized federal military power against the Ku Klux Klan and defended Blacks’ right to vote. But by the time Grant left office eight years later, the nation had lost its interest in promoting Black political power.
By the late 1870s the South was firmly back in the hands of violent white supremacists who retained their power with little substantial opposition until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. The KKK, other violent white organizations, and the Democratic Party crushed efforts at Black empowerment. In 1896, the Supreme Court issued its Plessy v. Fergusondecision, upholding segregation in public accommodations. Plessy remained the law of the land until Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged segregated public transportation with the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955.
In communities such as Wilmington, North Carolina, African Americans built bastions of economic and political power, creating successful businesses of every kind and electing a wide range of officials including the only Black member of Congress. But in 1898 state Democratic leaders, militia commanders, and white supremacist gangs such as the Red Shirts organized a coup in Wilmington to force Black elected officials from office, terrorize voters, and burn Black businesses, including the town newspaper. They murdered over 60 people and destroyed what had been a thriving community. Racist mobs continued to attack successful Black communities into the 20th century, including in the infamous 1921 Tulsa massacre.
White supremacists in Georgia and other southern states studied the Wilmington model and adopted it to disenfranchise Black voters and terrorize their communities. Poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses were developed to supplement violence as tools for suppressing Black political power. The consistency of these approaches and the thorough commitment to their implementation foreshadowed today’s efforts in state legislatures to adopt measures to suppress the Black vote.
The civil rights movement of the 1960s, with its focus on registering African American voters, finally began to successfully confront white supremacy. The movement’s veterans, including John Lewis, successfully sought political office. Lewis became a legendary member of Congress, and others successfully ran to become the mayors of Atlanta and other southern cities. The election of Barack Obama as President in 2008 reflects the success of the civil rights movement. But Trump’s election in 2016 and the rise of the new right demonstrates the persistent power of the post-Civil War divide.
The battle for political democracy remains front page news. The Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holderall but obliterated the protections created by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and paved the way for the current avalanche of voter suppression measures being passed in state legislatures. The racist reaction to Obama’s presidency helped empower the movement that elected Trump and inspired the “we shall not be replaced” marchers in Charlottesville in 2017. The Republican stranglehold in the Senate, with a near majority elected from states with just one-fourth of the country’s population, stymies efforts to pass even minor Democratic reforms.
The right-wing leadership is correct. Critical race theory is dangerous, even seditious. By shining light on this country’s history and explaining how we came to be where we are today, critical race theory can help people understand the inequalities and inequities that exist today and points the way to a legitimately democratic future.