It is Sunday, early, and we’re in Hendersonville, N.C. It is overcast, raining, the remnants of a storm moving through this picturesque mountain town.
Normally, I would be sitting in a pew at St Mark’s Church in Port Royal. This sitting (and some standing) comes with a homily – what we Episcopalians call the Eucharist – and with words. In this context words are called the Liturgy and they have been repeated over and over again for at least five centuries.
When I was younger I repeated an even older liturgy involving Latin words, sang hymns composed by Bach, and took communion in the form of a wafer. In those days I had a minor, non-speaking role as an altar boy.
This Sunday morning ritual got me in the habit of contemplating my spiritual self even thought I was only 10 years old. I found that I liked the simple, often repeated rules of Catholicism; and the concept of confession. Yes, I liked the exercise of excising one’s sins in a small dark room.
The best part of confession was absolution. The next best thing about confession was the fact that telling one’s sins, however serious, never meant “jail time.” Let me be clear on this point.
I never heard the priest say, “Scott, go over to the Provost Marshall’s office (my father was then in the U.S. Army) and turn yourself in; and then plead guilty to vandalism or manslaughter when your case comes up for trial.”
The penalty that I got was saying a dozen Hail Marys or, at worst, saying a Rosary or two. Others, perhaps adults, may have gotten instruction to put a hundred dollars into the collection plate; or some other penance that involved some actual discomfort.
But not me.
I admit I do miss the opportunity to detail my sins, have somebody say that I am forgiven; and then spend 10 minutes praying to the Virgin Mary.
All of which brings me to the Asheville Citizen Times and today’s editorial on Critical Race Theory.
The North Carolina Legislature is surely trying to pass a budget, and to make executions happen again in their state, but the news this Sunday morning is North Carolina’s effort to ban classroom discussion of Critical Race Theory. What these lawmakers seek — in a nutshell — is to stop the teaching “that an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
I believe that most of us — save the Dali Lama or Pope Francis — harbor a little prejudice in our hearts. And in this instance I’m including white, yellow, brown and black hearts. And I believe it is OK to talk about this prejudice from time to time even if it gets in the way of a classroom discussion on Jane Austen or string theory.
But my problem with Critical Race Theory is not talk in the classroom, it’s the notion that White people will only act in the interests of Black people if it serves their own self interest. It is the notion that in the 400 years of American history nothing has changed in the relationship between Blacks and Whites. It is the notion that nothing will ever change.
Derrick Bell, formerly of Harvard and often called the “Godfather” of Critical Race Theory, wrote “Faces at the Bottom of the Well.” “Faces” is a series of parables most making the point that racism is essentially permanent, ineradicable.
My early youth was spent in South Carolina, and I remember segregated schools; Blacks in the balconies at movie theaters; and race-restricted drinking fountains. But in my ensuing, adult lifetime I’ve seen changes, and many dramatic upgrades, in the status of Black people.
I have been witness to the equal housing, voting and accommodations legislation; and have watched, recently, how newly registered Black voters can change the outcome of a Presidential election.
Importantly, I have worked with Black attorneys and have argued cases in front of Black (female) judges.
And so I take issue with Derrick Bell’s (Critical Race Theory) writing that racism will always be with us.
But I also believe we must acknowledge our past, our sins, and bad actors like Pitchfork Ben Tillman and seek absolution.
But Derrick Bell would say (if he were alive) that forgiveness is impossible because racism will always be around. Rather, I believe Dr. Martin Luther King who said, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.