By Vilifying the History of Africans and Blacks in America As Racist Ideology, Policy Makers Snare Themselves in a Trap of Their Own Making
This essay presumes the study of history in public schools is important for students’ conceptual development. History creates a sense of identity and personal context. It advances an understanding of government, society, and law. History helps establish an appreciation for important events and the talents, contributions, and sacrifices of consequential figures that have inured to the country’s and students’ benefit. History also illustrates past examples of human depravity and inhumanity including the maltreatment of others, particularly those with immutable differences, as we continue to move toward a more empathic society that recognizes the importance and value of universal human and civil rights. It teaches lessons from which we learn of others’ mistakes and hopefully resolve not to repeat them.
A fair history of the United States cannot be told without a clear focus on, and thorough exposition of, the centrality of Africans and Black Americans — including their integral role in shaping the country and its course and the courageous examples of innovation, sacrifice, perseverance, and creative problem-solving in the face of insurmountable obstacles — from the country’s earliest days to the present.
Oil on Canvas, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Those who claim the history of Africans and Blacks as taught in America is its own form of racist ideology do so for crass political purposes, thereby manufacturing a false equivalency. I suspect Critical Race theorists might rest their case after policymakers — those responsible for selecting and structuring public school curricula — equate the history of Africans and Blacks in America with CRT. Claiming that history falsely indicts the power structures, institutions, and those who control them as inherently racist, those small-minded legislators and school boards should, but won’t, realize their insistence on a false or truncated historical narrative, or its removal from the classroom altogether, is the only component in this equation that advances the Theory they renounce.
Cynically, I suggest, maybe they are motivated by a more sinister plot, that in structuring a whitewashed curriculum, they fully recognize their false equivalency supports a Theory they characterize as dangerous, one they must renounce with all conceivable measures. On balance, the argument goes, they control that narrative in that way precisely because it is disadvantageous to underprivileged people and sustains and perpetuates a structurally favored status they deny exists while consciously enjoying its benefits.
CRT was an outgrowth of Critical Legal Studies (CLS). CLS was already a thing but was becoming more of a thing when I attended law school in the mid-80s. It had drawn the attention of certain professors and students at the law school I attended. Always eager to be perceived as one of the smart ones and on the cutting edge (I was neither), I tried engaging with others in what, for me, was a conceptually difficult discourse. CLS challenges normative viewpoints that contend the law is fair, neutral, objective, apolitical, and divorced from social influences. CLS argues otherwise, that the law is anything but objective or apolitical, has inherent social biases, and is constructed in a way to benefit — and perpetuate the existing advantages of — those in power who create the laws.
I remember a lecture my favorite law professor John Flynn gave on the merits and practicality of CLS. “After the deconstruction,” he mused rhetorically, “what’s left to do but groove on the rubble.” One article explains:
“CLS states that the law supports a power dynamic which favors historically privileged and disadvantages the historically underprivileged. CLS finds that the wealthy and powerful use the law as an instrument for oppression in order to maintain their place in the hierarchy. Many in the CLS movement want to overturn the hierarchical structures of modern society and they focus on the law as a tool in achieving this goal.”
It’s no wonder Critical Race Theory finds its roots in CLS. CRT, a somewhat malleable academic discipline commonly taught in college and law school, addresses deep racial disparities in this country and maintains that racism is “embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicates racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.” CRT asserts that race is “not connected to biological reality” as demonstrated by the Human Genome Project, “but is socially constructed and socially significant,” that racism is “codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy,” that a “meritocracy” and so-called “colorblindness” are nonsense in a society where “the systemic nature of racism bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequality.” “[M]any of our nation’s systems and structures — including the legal system — was created when people of color were denied full participation in American Society,” and the legal system “reproduces racial injustice.” Incremental improvements in recognizing and implementing equality and equity through civil rights legislation and like measures do little to address the underlying, embedded, structural imbalance. “CRT calls for a radical reordering of society and a reckoning with the structures and systems that intersect to perpetuate racial inequality.”
What mental contortions must policymakers perform to classify a curriculum of the history of Africans and Blacks in America — their role, contributions, sacrifices, the horrors they endured, their status as chattel, degradation, maltreatment, ownership, and perseverance — as racially divisive propaganda? If students infer the power dynamics in American law and society remain unfair and out of balance, find room for improvement, so be it.
The history of Africans and Blacks in America should remain a key curriculum in secondary public education, including without limitation the horrors of slavery, abolitionism, Dredd Scott, Harriet Tubman, the Civil War, Reconstruction, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, Jim Crow, the Tulsa Massacre, Plessy v. Ferguson and separate but equal, segregation, integration, bussing, Brown v. Board of Education, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the civil rights movement, George Wallace, the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing, Selma, nonviolent protest, civil disobedience, Rosa Parks, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the assassination of Dr. King, the thousands of lynchings in the Southern States throughout the country’s history, all the while police routinely kill unarmed black men.
An advanced course could include discourse in the use of race in politics to divide, with Nixon’s Southern Strategy, Reagan’s dog-whistling, George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton, Trump’s birtherism, the Supreme Court’s post-racial denials in Shelby County v. Holder, voter suppression, and now, for crass political purposes the pretextual claim that teaching history of Africans and Blacks is itself divisive, racist indoctrination.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com. Rob’s second novel, a beautifully written suspense drama that takes place in Utah, Wyoming, and Norway, dropped on November 17, 2020. Available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple Bookstore, and your favorite local bookshop, this novel, The Contortionists, which Rob himself narrates for the audio version, is a psychological page-turner about a missing child in a predominantly Mormon community. I have read the novel and listened to the audio version twice. It is a literary masterpiece. The Contortionists is not, however, for the faint of heart.
- *Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards, and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in many traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his artwork. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in: https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers.