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EDITORIAL: U.S.’s racial history must be examined

York Dispatch editorial board
Protesters broke through barriers to gather around speaker, State Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, who gave a speech during a Reopen PA rally in Harrisburg Friday, May 15, 2020. About 1,000 protesters participated at the rally in front of the capitol building. Bill Kalina photo

Say this for Pennsylvania’s Republican state lawmakers: They lose little time jumping on hot-button bandwagons.

From proposed legislation to ban transgender athletes from playing on school sports teams to ongoing efforts to make it harder to vote and easier to manipulate elections results, GOP leaders are ever quick to use conservative talking points as the basis for unfair and unnecessary legislation.

So, it is hardly surprising that Republican office-holders, led by state Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon, have scurried to introduce a bill to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in Pennsylvania schools. In doing so, they join party counterparts in some 20 other states.

Now, there is not actually a curriculum called “Critical Race Theory,” or, if there is, we’re not aware of it being taught either in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Rather, critical race theory is a practice of scholarly inquiry that began in legal circles in the 1980s and has leapt to the mainstream in the wake of the racial reckoning following the May 2020 murder of George Floyd at the hands of police.

It includes “rejection of popular understandings about racism, such as arguments that confine racism to a few ‘bad apples,’” writes Janel George for the American Bar Association, and “recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy.”

There doesn’t seem to be much to argue with there. Slavery was America’s original sin, Reconstruction was a failure, Jim Crow terrorized Black Americans for nearly 100 years and Civil Rights reforms, while vital, have failed to fully deliver on their promises of equality for all.

This isn’t opinion; it is our nation’s history. To ignore it, or whitewash it, or subvert it — as former President Donald Trump attempted with his amateurish “1776 Commission” and as Rep. Diamond and his cohort are trying to do today — is to disserve our students and our nation. And it insults the experience of Black Americans, both throughout history and those living today.

But Diamond’s bill attempts to do just that, mischaracterizing critical race theory with the very divisiveness conservatives claim it incites:

“Teaching our children that they are inferior or inherently bad based on immutable characteristics such as race and sex can be extremely damaging to their emotional and mental well-being,” reads the bill.

Nice try, but no. This isn’t about good and bad, or superior and inferior; it’s about academic honesty and the power of education to build a better future.

“When you know better, (you) do better,” Maya Angelou famously observed. America will never do better as a nation, in terms of racial justice, if it does not know better. And it will not know better if it not educated fully and honestly.

Diamond’s bill suffers not only from dishonest characterizations — the list of “racist or sexist concepts” it implies critical race theory endorses includes “an individual's moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex” and “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” — but constitutional shortcomings. In fact, David French, a writer for the Atlantic, assesses a provision banning colleges and universities from hosting “a speaker who espouses, advocates or promotes any racist or sexist concept” as “blatantly unconstitutional.”

Free speech concerns aside, the pushback against critical race theory in general is unfortunate, defensive and counterproductive. We will never rectify the racial inequalities that persist in this nation if we do not come to terms with the historic legacy from which they reverberate.

Stifling examination and understanding of that legacy simply perpetuates the inequalities.

Critics of critical race theory really ought to know better. Then they could do better.