By Ronald A. Wells
Back in June, Eugene Schlesinger, the editor of Covenant, wrote a fine essay that raised questions about “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). He asked good questions about a phenomenon that many people evoke but about which they often know little. Schlesinger asked for a reasoned discussion because racism is manifest in our society and because the Episcopal Church has, in a resolution by General Convention, called on all of us to work against racism in all its forms. There were a few quick-response comments to his essay and one very helpful one that listed links to valuable resources that might move the discussion of CRT forward. I hope someone takes up those suggestions and gives a full analysis of CRT for discussion in these pages to follow Schlesinger’s heuristic introduction. What I have to say here doesn’t do that.
In our time of identity politics, I will say that I am neither clergy nor a theologian. My teaching career was not in a theological school but a liberal arts college. I am a Christian historian who has sought the linkage between faith and academic learning, as in, e.g., my book History Through the Eyes of Faith.
As a historian I suggest that there are questions we ask of history and some that history asks of us. We all must pay close attention to, and join in with, what celebrated historian E. H. Carr called “the dialogue between the past and the present.” When studying and teaching American history there are many discrete themes, one of which is race. Indeed, the main paradox of American history is this: How did a nation that stands for liberty also become home to the world’s second largest system of slavery? (Only Brazil’s was larger and longer lasting.) This needs to be explained thoroughly and honestly. I don’t want to get into “theory” here but merely reflect on the things I discussed in a college classroom for nearly 40 years.
Let’s begin with this: The Founders of the United States intended the nation to be a place for “free White persons,” as outlined in the first immigration act, The Naturalization Act (1790). The United States was meant to be a “White man’s country.” We don’t need CRT to know that. Native and Black people might be present in the country, but they weren’t meant to be citizens of the nation nor central to its operation. Native peoples were pushed into reserved areas in undesirable places, and Africans were largely confined to slavery, followed by years of legally sanctioned discrimination, known as “Jim Crow” laws.
I assigned many books to my students, classics like Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery, American Freedom, Winthrop Jordan’s White Over Black, Stephen Oates’s To Purge This Land with Blood (a biography of John Brown), and John Blassingame’s The Slave Community. These and other books helped students to see that slavery, and the racism underlying it, were an essential part of American thinking and acting. Again, this is not some sort of “theory,” but an examination of realities on the ground, first in Virginia and later elsewhere. Slaves raised cotton, which was vital to the growth of industry in New England. All sections of early America took part in this racially-driven system. The economy grew and many people prospered, but those who produced cotton benefitted little, either in terms of wealth or freedom.
Not only did slavery expropriate the slaves’ labor, but violence toward African Americans was also a hallmark of slavery’s operation. This was especially true for Black women. After the end of slavery, violence continued with lynching. It has been estimated that there were, on average, about three lynchings a week during the years 1865-1920. That means murder and, most times, hanging in a public place (sometimes with male genitals mutilated). Lynching was well known in the Black community, and that ominous threat hung over their lives and thoughts. For most of American history, Black folks kept their “place,” or else.
Then we must discuss race riots that occurred in many American cities, in which Black people were murdered or injured and their communities set afire. The white perpetrators were rarely arrested and charged with the obvious crimes that were committed. Recently we have been reacquainted with this because of the centennial observation of the race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Students can also look up the riots in, for example, New Orleans and Memphis (1866), Pittsburgh (1886), Denver (1887), Omaha (1891), Little Rock and Atlanta (1906), East St. Louis, and Lexington (KY) and Philadelphia (1919). This gruesome record — and more could be added — was not secret. These events were obvious public knowledge in all the affected cities, and were recorded, in however biased form, in the major newspapers. So, no one can say, “Gosh, I never heard about any of this.” Either one hasn’t been listening to the American story, or the education one received was lacking. This returns us to the current debate about what should, or shouldn’t, be taught in our schools about race.
What’s the point of banning “critical race theory” if hardly anyone knows much about it, especially zealous state legislators — largely in one political party — who voted to ban it? When we get down to ground level, where school boards, principals, teachers, and parents are clashing, a few points of clarity have emerged. First, no one is actually teaching “critical race theory.” Can we imagine teaching a theory to sixth-graders that was meant for advanced law students? It’s not happening. Second, what one hears is that most objectors to CRT seem actually to be against a real reckoning with the racial history of the United States. One curriculum director told teachers that whatever is taught in the classroom must not result in a white student feeling “guilt or anguish.”
Well, that’s a tall order. When one talks about the slave trade, for example, facts speak for themselves. It is factual that 12.5 million people were packed onto slave ships in West Africa, and that 1.9 million of them died during the ocean voyage, known as “the Middle Passage.” This is not “race theory” but an acknowledgement that nearly two million Black bodies were unceremoniously buried at sea. The remaining 10 million people arrived in the New World to be bought, sold, and owned, they and their children after them. If there is no “anguish” after learning this, one’s education, moral upbringing, and church life have failed badly.
There are some possible escape routes that my students tried out over the years. One was an acknowledgement that this story was indeed bad, but that was then, and this is now. My family didn’t own slaves. What does this have to do with me in the here and now? One student even tried this one: “Dr. Wells, you’re a child of immigrants, whose family wasn’t even in the USA when all this happened. How does this implicate you?” Well, my parents indeed had never seen a person of African descent until they came to this country. But they soon learned how things worked, i.e., that even people of modest working-class status like them enjoyed privileges and preferences that were denied to Black people, and in my dad’s workplace (a print shop), to Catholics as well. Being white and Protestant gave them chances others didn’t have. This is what scholars call white privilege, which is not just about individual interactions in workplace and society but about the structure of institutions throughout the social order. The point here is the taken-for-granted assumption that white is “normal” in both how things are and how society operates. The operation of racist institutions does not turn on every person having racist attitudes but on what is embedded in those institutions, i.e., that white people are meant to be in charge, with white culture providing the standard against which things are measured. This is what is meant by institutional racism. Black people know this, but many white people either don’t know this or don’t want to know.
This is where our churches could come into play. There is at least a two-step process. First, we have to commit to learning about and acknowledging the racial history of the United States and its white privilege. Second, we have to commit to what is possible to support programs that work for racial justice in church and society. This may take many forms. One example I can offer comes from my home diocese of East Tennessee. Our bishop, Brian Cole, has organized and is leading a diocesan-wide discussion about what it might mean for us to become what MLK called “the beloved community.” Such efforts are good first steps. Perhaps others who read, or write for, these pages might think of others.
Ronald A. Wells is professor of history, emeritus, at Calvin University, Michigan. As a retired person, he has two parishes, Church of the Ascension, Knoxville, Tenn. and St. Mark’s Church, Venice, Fla.