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Understanding The Pushback Against Critical Race Theory In Schools


How American history should be taught is a contentious topic once again. Many Republican officials have decried an academic approach called critical race theory that makes race and racism central to explore in U.S. history, laws and institutions. There are movements in several states that would seek to mandate how U.S. racial history can be discussed in the classroom. Our next guest is an historian with some thoughts about all this. Julian Hayter is a professor at the University of Richmond. Professor, thanks for being back with us.

JULIAN HAYTER: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Critical race theory has been around since about the 1970s. What do you make of this current debate?

HAYTER: I think, in many ways, it's being used as a straw man - right? - by political forces that don't want to reconcile over our tortured racial history and the teaching of our tortured racial history, but even more importantly, how that history helps define many of the incidents that gave rise to the current racial reckoning. And I think it's interesting that critical race theory's being brought up at this moment while this country is relitigating some of the darker chapters of its racial history in the current context.

SIMON: Of course, President Biden spoke this week in Tulsa and talked about how white mobs had murdered hundreds of Black Americans and destroyed thousands of homes.

HAYTER: Right.

SIMON: And he pointed out that this event had been barely acknowledged for decades. It does not stand alone, does it?

HAYTER: No. I think what we've seen in the telling of American history for most of the 20th century is that certain people's history had been erased. If you look at a history textbook from the mid-20th century, you'd be hard-pressed to find people of color, women and even poor white folks, for that matter. And when you see these folks in these texts, they're almost always portrayed as inconsequential or dehumanized figures. So the Tulsa incident isn't a one-off. The burying of this history is more in keeping with the ways that American history was told throughout the 20th century than otherwise, in large part because it - in some ways, the teaching of American history up until recently was about heritage as much as it was about history.

SIMON: Do you think a lot of Americans view history as a discipline with fixed facts, something like algebra or geometry, when, in fact, it's not that at all?

HAYTER: Right. And I think in education or the teaching of history, we've moved away from heritage toward history. And many people don't know the difference, right? History is an attempt to reconstruct and interpret actual events and lived experiences. It follows rules of evidence and is peer-reviewed and debated. I think what a lot of Americans understand is heritage, which is a romanticized version of the past, usually devoid of the darker chapters. You know, these are the feel-good stories and, in some cases, stories that don't really deal with historical evidence, which isn't to say, by the way, that things don't happen in history. Of course, there are historical facts. The interpretation of those facts, however, is precisely what historians do. And I think a lot of people aren't necessarily familiar with that process.

SIMON: You, of course, speak with us from Virginia. For many years, a figure like Thomas Jefferson was considered to be the quintessential Virginia gentleman in American history.

HAYTER: Right.

SIMON: Does a reassessment represent a new opportunity for Americans to see themselves in a different way and, for that matter, see Jefferson as more human as opposed to a figure frozen in stone?

HAYTER: I think you can construct and deconstruct Thomas Jefferson at the same time. I think that's what historians would argue. In fact, I think one of the things that we've got to realize is historians are concerned about how prompts from the present can inform us in reimagining historical actors. And there's nothing controversial about that. And I think with someone like Thomas Jefferson - for decades, Monticello wouldn't deal with slavery and wouldn't deal with issues of race, even though that was an important part of Thomas Jefferson's legacy. And I think what we're struggling to come to terms with is the manner in which we can tell that story but still that - recognize that Thomas Jefferson was essential to the creation of American democracy and the American democratic experiment.

SIMON: Professor Hayter, you're a teacher of students. And I think we have heard many parents - white parents - who have expressed concern about the teaching of critical race theory. And they've said, in so many words, they think it's just hurtful and unhealthy for their children to somehow be induced or encouraged to see themselves as white supremacists or to be expected to feel guilty for crimes that - committed before they were born. What would you tell those parents and those students, your students?

HAYTER: That racial reconciliation is not a zero-sum game, that we can tell a more complete story of American history without making people feel guilty or being made to feel guilty. I think one of the things that critical race theory is really arguing is that things done purposely can only be undone on purpose. Recognition can be restorative. I think that's all it really is. Ultimately, I think it asks people to question how racism isn't necessarily an individual act of malice, but it's been institutionalized, especially in terms of public policy and private action. How do we know how far we have and have not come as Americans if we're unwilling to dig in to these darker chapters - pardon the pun - in American history? There can be no telling of the American story or a complete telling of the American story without race. It has been central to this country's development, and it's a defining characteristic of who we are.

SIMON: Julian Hayter is a professor of history, University of Richmond. Thanks so much for being with us.

HAYTER: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.