Guest editorial: Critique of Critical Race Theory not based in fact

Like science, history is an ever-emerging narrative based on curiosity, exploration, discovery, debate and interpretation. But like science (and journalism), it must be informed by fact.

The recent screed by former gubernatorial candidate John Klar of Brookfield in Vermont’s conservative online news blog True North Reports against Gov. Scott’s tacit support for “critical race theory” is heavy on political whining, but light on understanding and facts.

Critical race theory derived from the work in the 1970s and ‘80s of Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw, who were interested in highlighting racial disparities embedded in law and policy and in showing how, even when amended, their impacts can persist.

The theory is a framework for dialogue and exploration about racism. The “I don’t have a racist bone in my body” is a convenient way to deny a willingness to explore the depth of America’s history of racism and slavery — a philosophical and even sometimes religious belief that whites are naturally superior to the Black, Indigenous and people of color community. More relevant, however, it’s the effect of such beliefs that we live with today and that revisiting our history may allow us to come to terms with.

Seemingly in love with his own language, Klar writes:

“That pesky 14th Amendment — the one the nation enacted to protect slaves from discrimination — remains the law of the land, and it defends against all racism, including the ludicrous race-only edicts and statutes spewing from the bloated Vermont Legislature and governor’s sewage factory (which has exploited the COVID crisis to amp up its pollution production).”

Or, apparently triggered by Vermont Farm to Plate’s assertion that “Vermont must work towards racial equity in its food system in order to make the food system truly sustainable for everyone” — equity is “the condition that would be achieved when a person’s race… is no longer predictive of that person’s life outcomes” — he further demonizes critical race theory: “Another Vermont nonprofit abandons its purpose for the race card,” implying that its “goal now is to make black (sic) people become farmers — whether or not farming is viable, or the new recruits possess assets or experience.”

In a bizarre historical mash-up, he claims: “Blacks have never been ‘systematically’ targeted in Vermont as they have elsewhere, least of all in farming. The Abenaki were largely gone by 1650 — who shall we award their supposed land claims to? In Vermont, one can become recognized as Abenaki simply by claiming it, including receiving preferential treatment for COVID vaccinations: This is all a silly farce. All current white farmers should simply file as Abenaki, and Vermont’s farms would be 99% Abenaki-owned and we could shame New Hampshire and Maine!”

I appreciate a well-reasoned conservative argument and often find myself in agreement with some or all of what I hear, but the far right’s invectives against a sincere effort to confront the implicit bias and racism of the past at a deeper level seems to me sound and fury signifying nothing.

The respected historian Henry W. Bragdon, who co-wrote what became the standard secondary school text on American history, “History of a Free People,” first used the term “genocide” in describing U.S. military policy in subjugating Native Peoples.

William Loeb was the then-owner, publisher and opinion writer for The Union Leader in Manchester, New Hampshire. He was famous for running his editorials on the front page of his newspaper. At the time, Loeb also owned the St. Albans Messenger and the Vermont Sunday News.

Publication of Bragdon’s book triggered Loeb’s anti-Communist fervor and he began an editorial siege against Bragdon, and branded the school at which he taught, Exeter, “the Little Red Schoolhouse.” As further proof of his allegation, he noted MacMillan’s choice of a red cover for the first edition.

In 1976, Amoskeag Press published Kevin Cash’s searing biography of Loeb titled “Who the Hell Is William Loeb?" It exposed his efforts to hide his Jewish background, expunge the record of an earlier marriage and fabricate experience as a Hearst journalist. The book’s release and an ongoing lawsuit by his former wife essentially imprisoned him in his home in Prides Crossing, Massachusetts, for the rest of his life. Sound and fury don’t always end well.

I was reminded of Loeb when I read Klar’s impassioned screed against historians, academics and politicians open to the idea of exploring what is called “critical race theory” as an ongoing part of historical inquiry. Any diversion from white hagiography, it seems, must be soundly defeated.

Many Republicans and conservatives have seized on the term and weaponized it in their fight against academics, elites and liberals whom they perceive to be denigrating not only them but their vision of America. This is white racial anxiety and grievance in its bluntest form.

I would be the first to admit that the term sounds remote and academic and perhaps a bad choice of terminology.

The word “critical” in this context can have two meanings: “to criticize and malign” or “to view analytically.” If you see yourself as a victim, you’ll choose the former, but the phrase highlights the latter — the importance of reexamining our conventional understandings of history.

Like Sen. Joe McCarthy’s crusade against the perceived Communist menace pervading America, conservatives now have seized upon critical race theory as a warning to all Americans of the dangers of an honest reflection on race, caste and privilege. They’ve repurposed critical race theory as an ideology of “white sin” and inferiority that they claim is being deployed in our schools, churches, businesses and town halls to indoctrinate unwary citizens and children.

According to most legal scholars, the countless anti-critical race theory bills being advanced in state legislatures across the country have little chance of surviving judicial scrutiny and are unconstitutional. Fundamentally, the bills compromise free speech and academic freedom — odd, coming from conservatives who rail against “the cancel culture.”

Bills proposed in Connecticut and in New Hampshire would ban the teaching of “divisive concepts” — that is, content that causes “any individual to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.”

We’re fooling ourselves if we really believe that racism is a thing of the past and that the ongoing work of making a kinder, gentler nation is complete.

Most of us believe that change is a constant and that life and history are a continuum in which open dialogue and exploration hold the promise of advancing us toward a more civilized, equitable and peaceful world — that we still have work to do.

John Klar, meet Willam Loeb.

Editor’s note: William Schubart is a Vermont writer and entrepreneur.

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