What Clint Smith and Frederick Douglass Taught Me About Critical Race Theory

“Oppression doesn’t disappear just because you decided not to teach us that chapter.”

I decided to write this post reflecting on the first July 4th celebration since the government officially recognized Juneteenth.

I’ve been following Clint Smith for some time now, after his Crash Course video series popped up on my YouTube feed at the same time that I read an article about him in Poets & Writers.

clint_smith_-_2019_284891524101629_28cropped29Clint Smith is a scholar, poet, and educator. What I like about his delivery style is his deliberate attention to words and how they are spoken. What I like about his research is how he takes it seriously and presents it in a way that is both empowering and arresting.

Just check out one of his spoken word poems, “History Reconsidered.”

History. Reconsidered. Redefined. Revised. Rewritten. There’s been a lot of talk about that in recent years. Confederate statues are coming down, and it must mean “they” are erasing “our” history. Yet why is it that I’m still learning things about the past I had no idea about? Why have I learned next to nothing from stone effigies of a plantation owner on a horse, but learned so much from poet scholars?

Who are we to say we had it right the first time? “At some point you have to question who the writer is,” says Smith.

But some people, most of them conservatives who like Fox News, are trying to tell me that Critical Race Theory is a threat, is dividing the country, is against the teaching of Jesus. It’s a typical response from people who have benefited from status quo and are afraid of change. If you draw a line across a country and your grandchild points out that you drew the line, are they divisive? Or are you? We would rather put the label of “instigator” on the prophet who stirs us to repentance. We would rather the PI not come along and open up a cold case.

As The Christian Century summarizes, CRT “was developed in law schools and cultural studies scholarship during the 1980s and the 1990s to examine specific ways that legal systems and other institutions have racism embedded in their structures. CRT argues that to truly dismantle racism in this country, Americans need to focus on institutional structures and foundations.”

So, not focusing on white people as inherently racist, as Tucker Carlson and other pundits purport it does.

But what makes CRT so controversial for many people is the notion of examining structures and foundations of institutions that still exist, even if they’ve changed. It’s the idea of more change that scares people who are complacent with how things are now for them. And so what better way to silence change than to call it divisive and racist?

That’s not to say that some CRT practitioners haven’t jumped to wild conclusions regarding the relationship between black and white people. And while CRT is a scholarly tool, in the hands of woke culture it can morph into something else entirely. One could imagine, if every woke mob movement had its way, cotton textiles being criminalized because slaves once had to pick it by hand. But then we should examine the institution of woke culture for its own hypocritical and divisive roots. I mean, dear conservatives, if CRT was a gun, would you blame the gun for a murder? Or the one wielding it?

Traditionally, history written mostly by white men has too slowly come to acknowledge sins against minorities, then fashioned minority heroes in a way that suppresses current dissent, as if to say, “these black men have made America the perfect place it is today, so if you complain today, you dishonor them.” So to help us understand the function and purpose of Critical Race Theory, turn with me to this passage from Clint Smith’s book, How the Word Is Passed:0

I remember learning about Frederick Douglass, a fuzzy memory of an outstanding black orator and scholar in a time when most blacks did not occupy a dignified status in America. But I did not learn, for example, that Douglass called Independence Day a “sham.”

But why? Because it’s controversial. It challenges status quo.

As an American, wasn’t Frederick Doublass free? What right did he have to complain? Wasn’t his speech about July 4th disrespectful? The thing is, Douglass had to escape slavery as part of his journey to being statesman. Slavery did not allow him to be a successful statesman. This is why he could say “I have no patriotism.” It wasn’t because he hated Americans or the good things the government gave him. It was because he hated that it was pretending to be better than it was. This is its own subversive patriotism. It’s how you make a country better.

Until America included all people as equal, Douglass would not love the country any more than it deserved. It is this very dissatisfied truth-patriotism that led to the Emancipation Proclamation, to the Civil Rights Act. It is not far from God telling Israel, “I hate your sacrifices and ceremonies.” God doesn’t hate Israel. But he’d rather see it crumble than be fake. At least when it can crumble it can humble.

And this is crucial to Smith’s point: to lift up Frederick Douglass as if his fame and success were some sort of proof of how awesome America is—that is incredibly profane. Douglass did not succeed because of America. He succeeded in spite of America. America is better today because Douglass strove against the America that was. He could have succeeded in several countries around the world at that time. The slavery he escaped prevented countless others from enjoying the same success he had. Douglass was an outlier. Slavery made him the exception, not the rule. He is proof of why slavery had to be ditched. One of many proofs.

So we need to get Frederick Douglass’s story right in context. Not just tell his story as that of a black man who tried really hard in the land of the free so our schoolchildren can be so happy with their ancestors’ choices and agree that if you try hard too you’ll get everything you ask for. Because when you teach it that way, you tell minority children that any inequality they see is simply a result of not trying hard enough, not being virtuous enough, not belonging here enough.

Critical Race Theory seeks to tell the truth. It explains why, seventy years after slavery ended, we still had a president who declared “This is a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant nation and everyone else is here by sufferance.” Freedom can come with stipulations in an institution that seeks to place limits on your freedom, time and time again. As David Gushee reminds us, “privileged groups never give up their power voluntarily.”

As a white man, that’s hard for me to admit. But that doesn’t mean I’m the equivalent of a KKK wizard because I sometimes resist  the notion of giving up even a pinch of what I’ve inherited or earned in the name of progress. Not all legislation is created equal. It’s ok to be skeptical of an approach that would, for example, tax a poor white man in the name of a middle class black man. I just need to be aware of my own biases as someone who has been insulated from the suffering of others.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has said, American history has long been “the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands.” History that seeks to tell the truth is going to hurt because it forces us to see the work of our hands.

The gut reaction of any white person today might be “but that’s not me. I didn’t do it.” Of course not. But your people did, and their dividing work still lives on, and it still divides people, and you still refuse to acknowledge it and help repair the damage, then you are taking their side. CRT doesn’t divide, but calls us to work together to tell the truth. Then I put down the tool of CRT and pick up the tool of Gospel.

[below: Clint Smith’s Crash Course on Black American History and the American Revolution]

I understand the irony: why so many slaves chose to fight for the king of England in hopes they would be freed. White men wanted less taxes and more voting. Black people wanted to not have literal chains around their ankles and wrists and necks. They strove against America for the promise of a more sure freedom. That is foundational to the United States, and we have to accept it that way. I can see why people would do that today. I can also see why it makes many people nervous too.

Critical Race Theory has its limitations, and in the wrong hands it can become hypocritical and brutal. But well practiced it is a vital tool for progress.

Most of all, as a Christian it helps me see why it would be better for me to side with a king who promises real freedom than a rebellion that promises a false freedom. England outlawed slavery well before America did. Jesus promises a better freedom than America does. That sounds divisive to some people. But it’s the truth.

Quiet violence continues. We must always resist it. Even if it looks divisive. Even if it looks…unpatriotic.

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