As a 6-year-old child, I had no protective coating shielding my tender feelings from racist barbs.
Critical race theory (CRT) had not yet been conceptualized — Black folks, as I came to understand it, were still in survival mode — when I began first grade at my parochial school and was immersed for the first time in white Richmond. I could barely comprehend, but will never forget, what I overheard on the playground one day:
My father went to war
He pulled the trigger
And shot the n----r
And that was the end of the war.
My experience was a hot fudge sundae compared to that of 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, who was threatened with violence in 1960 for integrating an all-white public school in New Orleans. She was escorted to school by four deputy U.S. marshals — a moment made famous by the Norman Rockwell painting, ”The Problem We All Live With.” The Black students who integrated Richmond Public Schools in the early 1960s experienced quieter traumas, but trauma nonetheless.
Today, opponents of critical race theory think the entire civil rights movement can be encapsulated into one aspirational passage selectively culled from the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s. speech at the 1963 March on Washington: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Too many of these parents seem unwilling to invest in the content of their children’s character by having them learn about America’s history of racism — essential learning if their children are to become the anti-racists needed to produce the change envisioned by King. This nation remains a place where racism is embedded in virtually every aspect of American life, resulting in unequal access to housing, healthy foods, justice and quality education, and health care.
Some white parents fear their children are too fragile to absorb the truth. I suspect that these children are more resilient than their parents believe.
You don’t survive and thrive as a child of color — especially an impoverished one — without a hefty dose of resiliency. If you’re not considering the lived experiences of all children in this debate, that’s a problem.
Thursday night, the Hanover NAACP and Together Hanover hosted a forum, “The Truth About Critical Race Theory,” at the Mechanicsville Branch Library. But protesters outside the event apparently weren’t interested in learning the ABCs of CRT.
“EDUCATION NOT INDOCTRINATION” read one sign, adorned with a hammer and sickle — a bit of Red Scare imagery out of the Propaganda 101 toolkit.
Inside, Faye Belgrave, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Cultural Experiences in Prevention, and Paul Perrin, director of VCU’s health psychology doctoral program, explained the decades-old concept of CRT, which was described as a framework to help us better understand the historic and ongoing role of structural racism in American life.
This is complex stuff found in the curriculums of law schools and graduate schools, not in K-12 education, despite the narrative pushed by the right to stir up its white conservative base.
Thursday’s presentation featured statistical data on racial disparities in income, wealth and life expectancy, including in Richmond, where residents of Gilpin Court statistically have lives 20 years shorter than residents of Westover Hills.
White people have been sold the idea that anti-racism is a zero-sum game in which they are the losers. The reality is that attacking racism and discrimination benefits everyone. Toward that end, we need to be producing a generation of anti-racists.
During the Q&A, the speakers were asked: Why do you think it is appropriate to have children focus on other children’s race?
“I think that the issue is that children are already focusing on other children’s races,” Perrin said.
“They often are not getting an education with regard to differences between people. I don’t think that children know how to challenge bullying. I don’t think that they know well how to challenge racism when it comes out in conversations. So it’s already happening. And I guess that to not educate them and empower them and give them the tools to combat that racism or other forms of prejudice or bullying or marginalization that’s happening ... you’re sort of allowing the status quo.”
Belgrave said the goal of any discussion of race is to understand, appreciate and embrace different people and cultures. This is multiculturalism, which is not to be confused with critical race theory, she added.
“I don’t want my children to only be around children who look like them because the world is not like them. … So why wouldn’t I want my children to be around and understand the people they’re going to play with, the people that they’re going to work with when they grow up to be adults, the people they’re going to be roommates [with] in college.”
Critical race theory is not a political ideology. But it has been made so by politicians and voters in thrall to Donald Trump. The Hanover Patriots group protested outside Thursday’s forum. Members of the group were at the Jan. 6 Trump rally that preceded the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Trump, as president, was dismissive of the idea of systemic racism. When asked by journalist and author Bob Woodward if his white privilege clouded his understanding of the anger and pain keenly felt by Black people, Trump replied: “No. You really drank the Kool-Aid, didn’t you? Just listen to you. Wow. No, I don’t feel that at all.”
If your hero is disinclined toward empathy for Black people, it’s unlikely that anti-racism would be high on your agenda. You might argue, as critical race theory opponents have, that the discussion of racial difference in itself is a problem that sends their children spiraling into guilt and depression. But the “status quo” cited by Perrin perpetuates white supremacy.
The children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren born after King’s speech are still being judged by the color of their skin; their life chances, largely inhibited by America’s original sin.
Our children are the inheritors of a 400-year-old legacy of oppression. We must equip them with the empathy and education necessary to end the problem we all live with.
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