Opinion: critical race theory debate separates patriots from propagandists

Catie Pusateri, Opinion Writer

Sugarcoating our country’s history — or blatantly ignoring it — is not the patriotic act some Republican lawmakers want to believe it is. The recent outcry among conservatives against critical race theory exemplifies a fundamental misunderstanding of both America’s history and, ironically, our education system.

Critical race theory, originally coined in 1989 by U.C.L.A. and Columbia law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, acknowledges that racism is inherently built into America’s structures and institutions. It recognizes that centuries of slavery, segregation and discrimination continue to affect Black people’s lives today and their status in this country.

As a graduate-level concept, CRT is not taught in the K-12 curriculum despite claims by some lawmakers and parents. The curriculum does, however, include U.S. history which has predominantly centered around white Americans and reduced the experiences of Black Americans to an afterthought.

Movements to diversify education, which have gained more traction in recent years, foster a wider worldview and help students consider experiences unlike their own. That’s what education should be at its core: exposure to new ideas, concepts and experiences.

Attempts to thwart this progress come from overwhelmingly white lawmakers and parents who feel discussing race in a classroom, specifically the existence of systemic racism, is “divisive.”

One Indiana elementary school with a 97 percent white population allowed parents to opt-out of Black History Month lessons. Ohio Republican legislators introduced a bill to restrict discussions of “divisive concepts” in the classroom, such as notions that America is “fundamentally racist or sexist.”

At the heart of this debate is white discomfort masked as concern for children’s education. Many white people do not want to face our country’s history or delve into its persistent racism because it is uncomfortable. But that’s the point — learning about racism should make you uncomfortable.

We cannot learn in an environment where we’re coddled or shielded from America’s grim underside. We learn by facing the hard truths and carrying that knowledge with us so we never dare to repeat them.

Former President Donald Trump targeted the CRT debate when he issued an executive order “to combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating” which sought to suppress training that suggests America was built on racism.

The executive order further declared that since the Declaration of Independence expresses that all men are equal, it cannot be possible that America was built on racist ideologies. It says it right there in writing, so it simply must be true. But don’t bring up that the authors, our glorious founding fathers, were slave owners. That’s a “divisive” topic, and we cannot talk about things that make white people uncomfortable.

Opponents of CRT echo the same unfounded fear: “We’re teaching children to hate America.” If you have to hide and dilute our history for children to love our country, then how authentic is their love in the first place?

You can be a proud American while still acknowledging the unforgivable and unfathomable harm our nation has inflicted. It’s patriotic to demand better from your country and to advocate for all people in America. Requiring pro-American education like Trump envisioned isn’t patriotism. It’s propaganda.

The desire to glorify America and ignore its abhorrent past in the name of patriotism sounds woefully familiar. History harshly condemns countries that have tried to suppress and control education, and these attempts to stifle classroom conversations on racism will not be looked upon kindly.

Classrooms should be forums for students to discuss, learn and grow. They form their own opinions based on their education and exposure to new ideas. Banning topics that could potentially be “divisive,” which unsurprisingly covers race, sets a dangerous precedent in a country that so confidently claims to believe in free speech.

White people’s comfort does not, and should not, take precedence over learning about the experiences of Black people in this country. It’s a privilege to learn about racism in school rather than to experience it in real life. It’s an immense privilege to not fear for our lives when we get stopped by the police, go for a run or fall asleep in our own bed.

We all have so much learning to do, especially the most patriotic of us.

Catie Pusateri is an opinion writer. Contact her at [email protected].