Vocal opponents of critical race theory aim to perpetuate the myth of meritocracy and the single story of American exceptionalism, author Clint Smith said Monday night.
It’s all part of a pushback against learning the history that has made our country look the way it looks today, he told the crowd at Liberty Hall.
Smith is a poet, a journalist and the author of “How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America,” among other works. The book explores the brutal history, legacy and lasting effects of slavery. Smith on Monday addressed critical race theory in the context of responding to those who oppose the concept that they think is CRT.
He shared the story of a man named Jeff. A son of the confederacy, Jeff’s childhood memories included visiting the cemetery with his grandfather, “singing the songs of the old Dixie,” hearing stories of all the brave men buried there who had fought and died for their families, culture and homes — “and how this actually had nothing to do with slavery, and that was just propaganda that was trying to destroy the reputations of these men,” Smith said.
For Jeff, it’s not a matter of empirical evidence that the Civil War was the southern states’ attempt to keep enslaved people as property, Smith said. So it’s not just about needing to reassess history — “It represents an existential crisis. It represents a threat to his sense of self, because if he has to accept that the confederacy would fight a war predicated on maintaining the use of slavery — which is what it was — then he would have to accept that what his grandfather told him was a lie.”
Smith said people feel like they don’t know who they are, because so much of who they are — and their knowledge of their relationships and communities — is tied to the lies that they’ve been told.
“We see a modern generation of this right now with this sort of critical race theory boogeyman that is a direct response to the shift in public consciousness that has happened over the past several years because of Black Lives Matter,” Smith said.
Many people in this country have experienced a profound shift in the way they understand the history of the country in the past decade, particularly in the wake of the murders of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, he said.
So the opposition to critical race theory “is a very direct effort to say, ‘Let’s not continue to excavate the history that calls into question why our society looks the way that it does today’; the history that actually gives us more information with which to understand that the reason one community looks one way and another community looks another way — it’s not because of people in those communities, but it’s because of what has been done to those communities, generation after generation after generation,” he said, drawing spontaneous applause from the audience.
He said when thinking about the true meaning of critical race theory, he thinks of what he was taught about the New Deal — that it lifted millions out of poverty, the single greatest catalyst of intergenerational wealth of the 20th century.
But that’s only part of the story.
“Black people didn’t have access to Social Security, minimum wage protection, housing mortgages, healthcare, GI Bill, union membership — all of these things that created the bedrock upon which generations of wealth and upward mobility will be created, they very intentionally give it to one group of people, and very intentionally don’t give it to another group of people,” Smith said.
“And then people want to act surprised generations later when there are disparate outcomes along the lines that these resources were allotted.”
But that wasn’t because the law was written to say that Black people could not access the benefits the New Deal created.
Instead, the New Deal targeted the occupations largely held by Black people, including farm workers and domestic workers in the south — about 75% of whom were Black, he said — and excluded them from accessing those benefits.
“So what happens is, you create race-neutral language that has incredibly racialized policy,” he said. “And critical race theory is a legal theory that is saying we have to understand the way that racism is embedded in public policy — like the New Deal that continues to shape what inequality looks like in this country.”
Smith said it’s important that there be a vocal contingent of people there to push back against those who attempt to lump together any type of Black history that makes them uncomfortable as “critical race theory.”
“This is an effort that is specifically created to perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, to perpetuate the single story of American exceptionalism, and to get us not to understand and excavate the history that explains why our country looks the way that it does,” he said.
Learn more about Clint Smith from his website, clintsmithiii.com. Monday’s event — which Smith said was only his second in-person event in the last two years — was put on by the Lawrence Arts Center and the Hall Center for the Humanities at the University of Kansas.
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Mackenzie Clark (she/her), reporter/founder of The Lawrence Times, can be reached at mclark (at) lawrencekstimes (dot) com. Read more of her work for the Times here. Check out her staff bio here.
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“So much of the ever-changing debate about critical race theory — a term for an academic body of work not taught in K-12 public schools — centers the feelings of white students. We rarely seem concerned about how Black students have felt in public schools,” Mark McCormick writes in this column for Kansas Reflector.