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  • Reverend James Squire

Critical Race Theory and the 1619 Project

If I asked most Americans what is Critical Race theory and the 1619 project, many would never have heard of either and most would never understand the various interpretations of what these two initiatives mean. I hope that I can make this complex theory and The New York Times 1619 Project available to the man and woman in the street. The arguments for and against both views are not being argued as much by teachers and parents. The discussion is raging in state legislatures where both liberal and conservative government officials want to win the battle for the soul of the educated child.

Let’s start with Critical Race Theory (CRT) which has been around for a while. First, the theory has its origin in institutions of higher learning. Think Harvard. Beware when something comes from the ivory tower of Smart Street because they are the least capable of making ideas accessible to those of us on Main Street.

The heart of CRT is to see American history through the lens of race. There are many interpretations of this history but basically this theory does not see race as a biological issue. They see race as a socially man-made idea by one race to keep another, the black race, in a subordinate state. The oppression of black people and the origins of white supremacy are seen clearly in this view. All public policy should reflect the this view of history.

I read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States which was an alternative view of American history. It deals with facts and not opinions about the “real” history of the United States. I called our History Department chair to ask if she knew of this work. Not only did she know about it, but taught parts of it when she taught any subject in the curriculum. The conservatives refer to it as left-wing propaganda. I didn’t find it to be such. CRT looks at the facts of our history through the lens of race which means that there is a system in place to keep black people disenfranchised. The opponents to this view feel that it has taken us back to when we emphasized the color of a person’s skin. They indicate that Dr. King would never advocate the CRT theory because he focused on seeing others as more than skin color. They are quick to recite his words “to measure a person by their character and not by the color of their skin.”

If you want to read the best book on this issue, read Isabel Wilkinson’s, Caste, and you will see why Oprah sent copies to the heads of Fortune 500 companies and the owners of various professional sports teams.

Why are we now hearing so much about CRT? It is because of The 1619 Project. This is a curriculum developed by The New York Times and Nikole-Hannah Jones. It places the contributions of black Americans and slavery at the very core of the historical narrative. It is named the 1619 project because that was the year when slaves arrived in America. The difficult questions addressed by the project are: “Was America born as a slavocracy or was America founded in liberty? If you believe the first part of the question, then our history has been a history based in inequality caused by systems of racism. If you agree with the second part of the question, then you believe that our country was founded on what our founding fathers articulated and that our history bends toward equality.

The 1619 Project depends more on story as an important narrative in understanding the real nature of our history that needs to be taught next to historical facts. For example, each chapter of Caste begins with a story about black people and continues with historical facts which reflect the racism highlighted in the story. The 1619 Project won the Pulitzer Prize.

The problem is that it is like the Israeli and Arab conflict. Each side describes the history very differently. A representative from America was born as an experiment in liberty group and a representative from those who believe that our country had its genesis in slavery, are going to see things very differently from each other.

The title of an article, in the December 23, 2019 The Atlantic, speaks to the issue: “The Fight Over the 1619 Project Is Not About the Facts. A dispute between a small group of scholars and the authors of The New York Times Magazine’s issue on slavery represents a fundamental disagreement over the trajectory of American society. In short, was Dr. King right that “we shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long and bends toward justice?”

I never had the opportunity to be in the ivory tower of a school marked with a diversity of ideas present in all constituencies. This is a blessing but presents challenges such as exist in our nation today. I had to have my feet firmly planted. I was too liberal for some and not liberal enough for others. It is a broader challenge than when you can, as they do in congress, just say you are a liberal or conservative. We did a lot regarding diversity through our chapel services. I prefer “where the rubber meets the road conversations.” Everyone needs to be beyond labels!

I had a black mother come to see me in outrage. She was complaining that I and others were putting too much emphasis on racism. She said, “You know what I want? I don’t want my son to make excuses because of his race. I want him learning the same thing these white kids are learning. Sure, there is racism! If you don’t think so, you are dumb. I am sending him here for one reason. He needs to learn to work hard and learn a lot so when he gets into the real world, he can become as successful as the white people here. I want him to have the same choices they have. Don’t take his mind off the prize. You get me?” Since she was a friend, a small smile slipped through her outrage. I wonder what she would think about the debate about the history of our country?

I think that Congress should ask her a question about this issue. I would suggest that Congress be given seat belts and to strap themselves in. Through her thunder, you will hear what Main Street thinks. You won’t be able to hide behind a label or ideology!

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