Commentary

On critical race theory: We don’t arrive at truth until suffering speaks | Opinion

June 9, 2021 6:00 am

Pamela Hall sells t-shirts and masks while chanting for justice outside the Hennepin County Courthouse on March 8 in Minneapolis as jury selection begins in the murder trial of former police officer Derek Chauvin. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

The late historian John Henrik Clarke explained the dominant subculture’s preoccupation with manipulating history.

Europeans “began manipulating history in the 15th century to justify the slave trade,” said Clarke, a pioneer in Pan-African studies, during an interview with Tony Brown on Brown’s eponymous show in the 1970s.

Modern racism incubated during this period, Clarke said.

Detractors of critical race theory — a catch-all for the study of American history and institutions as extensions of racial injustice that influence law, the economy and culture — embody Clarke’s explanation.

What needed hiding, essentially from our founding to today?

Much of what critical race theory opponents still want hidden. It’s gruesome, but it’s our history.

Most of us learned, for example, about slave traders and slave owners, but never about slave breakers, who employed ghastly means to break the spirits of enslaved Africans.

Slave breakers tortured husbands to death in front of pregnant wives, hoping to not only break the spirit of the woman but intending to funnel fear into the unborn child. Slave breakers also sliced the unborn from their mother’s wombs and killed them in front of their fathers.

“You cannot enslave a man and say he is a human being,” Clarke said.

The American Slave Trade,” by John R. Spears, “From Slavery to Freedom,” by John Hope Franklin, “The Negro Family in the United States,” by E. Franklin Frazier, “Antislavery,” by Dwight Lowell Dumond and “Malcolm X on Afro-American History” all reference this process.

Could a society justifying this actually grant Black people equal rights?

It hasn’t, and attacking critical race theory offers ways to justify racial wealth and health gaps and other forms of socially engineered inequality.

Slavery begat sharecropping and convict leasing, during which people who’d been systematically denied jobs were arrested for vagrancy, imprisoned, and then worked to death.

African Americans endured segregation and a period of lynching that extended deep into the 20th century. Throngs attended lynchings. Some collected the victims’ skin and teeth as souvenirs. Others made postcards of the spectacle.

The Tulsa race massacre of 1921 wasn’t an outlier. Similar incidents happened in places like Wilmington, North Carolina, and Springfield, Missouri.

That period gave way to housing discrimination.

Our government offered loans to white families moving from urban housing projects to new homes in publicly funded suburbs. Black families were explicitly denied such loans and couldn’t escape to better schools or build wealth through home ownership as the emerging white middle class did.

Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law” expertly detailed these practices, explaining that current housing patterns aren’t an accident but the result of explicit government policy.

The bipartisan Kerner Commission Report in 1968 addressed these housing patterns.

“What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto,” the report read. “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Those housing patterns still frustrate efforts at school integration and educational equality.

Many Americans are rightfully ashamed of this history. Others who don’t know — or who don’t care to know — are the people angered by Colin Kaepernick and others pursuing critical race theory-driven discussions.

But attempts to hide this history are misguided.

How do you evade prosecution for a crime?

Silence the witnesses.

Critical race theory’s only error is its name. It isn’t a theory at all. It represents the lived Black experience. And I haven’t mentioned red-lining, environmental racism (Flint, Michigan), police terror, mass incarceration or how the government typically rammed interstate highways through Black communities.

Race remains an organizing principle in America. Any racial reckoning requires an understanding of this fundamental fact. From the Three-fifths Compromise, to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dred Scott ruling that enslaved people had “no rights the white man was bound to respect,” to today.

Yes, we’ve revised the Constitution and no, Scott is no longer precedent. But there’s much more to do and critical race theory is a part of that healing process.

We don’t arrive at truth until suffering speaks.

Critical race theory opponents — some of whom also are whitewashing the Jan. 6 insurrection — want to keep their knees on truth’s neck, hoping to silence the horrors and suffering of the past.

The maintenance of our current status quo depends on it.

This commentary originally ran in Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom; follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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Mark McCormick
Mark McCormick

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum and a former newspaper columnist.

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