CRT Debate "Abstract and Uninformed," Says AHA PresidentRoundup
tags: curriculum, AHA, American Historical Association, teaching history, critical race theory
Jacqueline Jones is president of AHA.
Since the spring, critical race theory (CRT) has become the focal point of strident public debates over the teaching of history and civics in K–12 schools and at colleges and universities. Much of the discussion around this theory has remained maddeningly abstract and distressingly ill informed.
CRT provides an intellectual framework for understanding the many ways that governmental entities and private interests have put racial ideologies into practice in the form of laws, taxation policies, public works projects, regulatory guidelines, profit-making schemes, hiring preferences, and more. The cumulative effects of these practices include persistent patterns of poverty and inequality among minority populations—patterns that have proved impervious to civil rights legislation. Despite its critics’ claims to the contrary, CRT does not focus on individuals or on individual acts of discrimination; rather, it illuminates and draws attention to the historic biases embedded in economic and political structures.
I have found that when I teach the American history survey, my students breathe a collective sigh of relief when we get to the mid-1960s, when Congress passed civil rights legislation. They see these federal initiatives as the culmination of a generations-long struggle against state-sanctioned discrimination; they assume that these laws finally secured a level playing field in housing, education, employment, and voting and that any residue from generations of bias gradually disappeared within the next few years. These assumptions are wrong.
Teaching informed by CRT can challenge students to rethink these assumptions. It can help them understand and recognize the many forces in society that perpetuate racial bias, even after the passage of major pieces of civil rights legislation. Here are some relevant, concrete historical facts—and an interpretation—that reveal the usefulness of critical race theory. This approach has informed my own scholarship and teaching.
Approximately four million enslaved men, women, and children won their freedom during and immediately after the Civil War. The end of the legal institution of bondage did not guarantee the formerly enslaved actual freedom, however. Most emerged from the war with little or nothing in the way of material possessions or financial resources. Propertied whites colluded to deny them access to credit, which meant they could not buy land. Many freedpeople in the Cotton South became sharecroppers, an exploitative labor system that at times took the form of peonage. Freed Black people received no compensation for their lifelong backbreaking work or for the work of their forebears over the preceding two and a half centuries.
By 1910, the former Confederate states had passed laws to disenfranchise their Black male populations. Local systems of legally mandated segregation developed that served to humiliate Black people in public but did not bar Black servants from entering white households every day to cook, clean, and care for children. White terrorists carried out a campaign of lynchings and assaults of Black men and women across the South. Private employers and southern states devised convict-lease and prison-labor systems that resembled slavery, with Black people arrested, incarcerated, and condemned to heavy labor on the slightest pretext. With the exception of members of a small, vibrant, urban middle class and a small but growing class of farm owners, most Black southerners began the 20th century impoverished, lacking cash, land, credit, and a political voice.
It was no wonder, then, that Blacks began to move north during World War I, when jobs in that area of the country became available to them. Over the next half century, about seven million would leave the South in search of decent housing, employment opportunities, political rights, and personal dignity. However, the federal government colluded with private interests such as banks and real estate agents to thwart the ambitions and aspirations of people of color. Segregated schools and housing, combined with discrimination in employment and home lending, had long-lasting, devastating consequences for many Black families.