Raulston Arboretum is a quiet refuge for plants, birds, and people. Before the pandemic, I visited the big garden at N.C. State a few times each spring to see the new blooms, and I really missed it last year. Now it’s open again, and things are growing wonderfully. The daffodils have gone and the irises are waning, but the roses have arrived in force.
It’s really cheering to see our leaders working on some of our real problems, like climate change, infectious diseases, police violence, roads and bridges, jobs with fair wages, child care, health care, voting rights, and education.
Not so cheering is the latest culture war ploy to rouse the MAGA base: attacking critical race theory and education on the legacy of slavery. Outside of specialized scholars, few had heard of critical race theory until recently, and none had reason to worry about its undermining the social order. Now Republicans in several states are working to ban it from classrooms, and McConnell and most GOP senators are characterizing anti-racism as “divisive nonsense.”
Critical race theory raises problems concerning race and the legal system. McConnell, the Fox pundits, and their allies are promoting the view that this amounts to criticizing America as hopelessly evil. Their position is that talking about our race problems is essentially traitorous, and should be stopped.
This is bizarre, but also makes a kind of sense. For anyone just arriving from outer space: Americans have been thoroughly socialized in a caste system that distinguishes between people and allocates privileges based on skin color, with the lighter people generally privileged over the darker people. Understanding how this came to be, how it works now, and what can be done about it is complicated. The background includes hundreds of years of history, as well as laws, schools, and customs.
It hadn’t occurred to me until this week that a possible response from the right wing, or anyone, could be: the racial caste system doesn’t exist. That’s as delusional as saying the last election was stolen from Trump, or that we need to change our voting laws to prevent fraud by Democrats. But here we are.
Of course, some well meaning people believe that the best thing to do about our race problems is to try to treat all people the same and act like race does not exist. In fact, it’s true in one sense that race is a fiction. It’s a creation of culture, rather than of biology.
But a key part of our culture rests on what we’ve learned to think of as differences in races. We’ve been thoroughly schooled in those supposed differences, to the point that many of us mistakenly think they’re inherent in nature. Becoming conscious of our own understanding of race and getting rid of the myths and fears we carry around is a big educational project. It requires some long discussions, with good teachers and leaders.
We have some such leaders working to correct unfairness in our system, but unfortunately, there are others, like McConnell and the Disgraced Former President, now proposing to lead in the opposite direction.
On top of the spurious racial notions bequeathed to us by our forefathers, politicians have been using race as a political wedge issue for several generations. Cynical politicians periodically organize by stoking groundless fears of attacks by violent erratic dark-skinned people, or (with no regard for consistency) of overly diligent dark-skinned people taking our jobs. This lying strategy has often been successful in attracting votes, and has reinforced the caste system.
The right-wing attack on critical race theory is related to this, but with an interesting twist. Instead of directly targeting dark-skinned people, it targets those who want to discuss the systemic problems of the caste system. As part of this, in a classic Orwellian/Trumpian move, it tries to re-label anti-racism as racism.
The right-wing objective is to prevent discussions that challenge the advantages of the privileged caste. As a bonus, it provides a moral self-justification for silencing the discussion: the privileged silencers can think of themselves as good people who oppose racial distinctions.
As Americans, we’ve been taught to think of ourselves as on the whole good, well-meaning folks. We’ve been steered away from learning much about the immoral and tragic forces that helped build our country (like slavery and expulsion of indigenous peoples) and the continuing brutality of our caste system (like widespread police violence and mass imprisonment).
Our education system has been sadly deficient in equipping us to address such problems. For a long time, many of us in the privileged castes barely noticed how the caste system disadvantaged the low caste folks. With de facto segregation, we seldom saw them, except when they quietly worked for us. Many of us accepted the system as on balance a pretty good one.
But here we are. We’re learning more about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, and the bloody resistance to the civil rights movement. We’re learning more about how we took the land of indigenous people through brutal violence and trickery. We’ve started the discussion about fixing our caste system, which will not be easy. Even ignoring the right wingers who view any such efforts as treason, there are still many who believe the stereotypes they were taught Unpacking such ideas will take a lot of work.