When the Senate voted last week to recognize June 19 as a federal holiday, the reaction among many of my friends and me was, “Watch out, they’re up to something.”
The “they” in question are lawmakers from both sides of the aisle who specialize in pandering to their constituents, making empty gestures while refusing to act on issues that truly matter to their lives – or in some cases, acting in ways that make their constituents’ lives more difficult.
See, the Juneteenth holiday is a relatively new thing for most people, even many Black Americans. It commemorates the fact that formerly enslaved people in the state of Texas knew nothing of the Emancipation Proclamation passed into law in 1863. They worked in bondage two-and-a-half years longer than they had to, until June 19, 1865, when a Union general notified Blacks in Galveston they were free.
I tell you this because teachers soon won’t be able to explain this to their classes. Under the guise of protecting schoolchildren, conservative lawmakers across the country are enacting bans against critical race theory.
This is just one part of the “something” that “they” are up to.
Critical race theory began in the legal community as an approach to looking at how laws adversely affect minorities. It then expanded into other areas, including looking at how race and racism have influenced America since the beginning, as studied in the prize-winning The 1619 Project.
Critical race theory is less about individuals and individual behaviors than it is about institutions and the rules that safeguard them. The No. 1 job of any institution is to perpetuate itself, so in that regard, the actions of these lawmakers make perfect sense.
Students who are never taught about how race was created to justify dividing people into masters and servants, elite and working class, haves and have-nots, “real” Americans and “those animals” at our borders are easier to convince that America is still a city on a hill, a bright and shining light to the rest of the world, God’s exceptional nation with liberty and justice for all.
It’s like conservatives think Americans are too simple to believe in America unless it’s impossibly perfect. Or maybe conservatives are so simple-minded they actually believe America is impossibly perfect. They put a lot of effort into protecting this pristine, implausible “America” that doesn’t exist – and never did.
I’ve praised writer Michael Harriot here before. A recent project of his explains the fake “America” these lawmakers are protecting. Harriot and a team at The Root website found history textbooks for several Republicans who have led attacks against The 1619 Project. This included Mitch McConnell, Tommy Tuberville, Marsha Blackburn and, yes, South Carolina’s own Lindsey Graham.
What they found were highly sanitized readings that purposefully underplayed the institution of slavery – if slavery was mentioned at all – and its role in the country’s development and rise to global power.
The 1958 edition of “The History of South Carolina” swapped passages found in earlier editions describing Africans as “irresponsible, uneducated, unmoral and, in many cases brutish” for updated claims that “most masters treated their slaves kindly” and “the slaves were given the opportunity to become Christians in a Christian land, instead of remaining heathen in a savage country.”
This type of characterization led Harriot to conclude, “American schools have never taught a version of history that wasn’t racialized. But, apparently, it’s perfectly fine if the racial narrative skews toward whiteness.”
Conservative lawmakers aren’t attacking critical race theory because it rewrites the truth; they attack it because it is a verifiable truth that undermines the lies they were taught, have believed all their lives and want to pass on to future generations.
Everything they do goes toward upholding the sanctity of this noble, unsullied “America,” from cutting federal benefits for those unemployed by the pandemic (mostly women and brown-faced low-wage earners) to resisting police reform to voter-suppression laws to whitewashing the January 6 insurrection.
Some would go as far as sacrificing America itself, as in Kentucky Republican Rand Paul’s recent declaration that democracy “goes against our history and what the country stands for.” Which country is that, Sen. Paul?
Progressives warn conservative lawmakers, “History will judge you” or “You will go down as being on the wrong side of history.” That won’t happen if recent events continue down their current track. More to the point, conservatives don’t care.
If they did, they would realize the easiest way to counter critical race theory would be to stop being actively racist and face the truth of America’s imperfect past. But no, that wouldn’t be the “American” way.
Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.