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Not Critical Race Theory, Just American History

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.


  1. One of the things, it seems to me, that the churches can do here is model the kind of charity that these sorts of debates desperately need. We live in the third most populous country in the world; so no doubt, if you dredge the right fever swamps, you can find a couple of dozen or so souls who don’t want the history of slavery or Jim Crow taught in schools. But that’s probably it. Not wanting their children to learn history, warts and all, isn’t what’s causing the upset with CRT. Nor does anyone think post-graduate theories are being taught to six-year-olds.

    Parents probably think CRT is affecting decisions made by those designing their children’s curriculum, and they may well be right about that. If so, it would behoove school districts to be straightforward about it and give concerned parents some reassurance rather than make unlikely and unnecessary assumptions about the motives of parents.

    I spent my career in the nuclear industry. And we learned a thing or two about dealing with earnest – sometimes invincible – ignorance. We never talk, for instance, about a reactor “going critical.” Sure, that only means we have a sustainable chain reaction, but most people aren’t going to understand the term in that technical way, so we don’t use it. Key thing: we never assume that the people who want to shut our plants down have any but the best motives. We deal with them as such and hope they’ll extend us the same courtesy. And they usually do, though not always. But we never change our assumptions about their good faith, regardless.

    What the churches can do in the CRT debate is appeal to the best in both sides and try as best we can to clarify everyone’s good intentions. Everybody wants racial harmony and pretty much everybody is willing to be made uncomfortable in order to achieve it. It may well be that CRT is not a threat. It may be that it uses technical language that functions like the term “critical” in nuclear power operation. Maybe some terms should be avoided. Maybe the churches can help better communicate these things. Then again, maybe it’s not going to be all that helpful. If so, opposing it is a good thing.

    Simply picking a side and assuming the other is acting in bad faith isn’t going to do anybody any good. The Church needs to bring the love of Christ – which sometimes involves saying hard truths – to the world. It can’t just be a part of the world talking to itself.

    • I applaud your desire to see the best in people. However, as we enter the realm of politics, I think many do not share your Christian charity. In political theater there are some who potentially do not want racial harmony or any harmony. They want chaos and destabilization. Now perhaps you could offer that they have “good” intentions in creating chaos and political revolution. CRT can become a political tool to create unrest. If they convince the populace that there has been and continues to be systemic racism in a capitalist democracy with values of meritocracy that somehow conflict with equity then they can overthrow structures to create another system. You could argue that socialists in China and Russia had good intentions in overthrowing governments there, but I’m not sure the human rights violations of Stalin or Mao in securing power could be seen as well intended but perhaps in their minds the ends justified the means. Part of me thinks that while we as Christians we will rightly be on the side of justice and equality, the politics of this world should not be our focus. The eternal soul’s salvation is the ultimate justice whereas the justice found on earth is either non-exitant or fleeting. To endure political injustice no matter which country one lives in is a cross to bear as we render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s (political arguments as tools for political power). Should we therefore pick a side, or stay out of the argument. Is it correct to say one side of a political argument is right and one wrong (both well intended)? Perhaps neither side within Caeser’s debates is rooted in an imitation of Christian love.

  2. In the first place, we can’t teach the history of race relations in the United States unless we include the history of slavery in the World. To the best of my knowledge there is no authoritative history of slavery and race in the US, let alone the World, so what are we teaching?

    I was one of the 1,000 students who went to Mississippi in 1963 to help found the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. When I got there I realized I knew virtually nothing about the background of the Black people we came down there to help in their struggle for freedom. And so I have spent a good part of the past 55 plus years trying to find out what that history was. I have found out it is far more complex than ANY academic or popular source I have read. I don’t have the space or time in this forum to go into what historians have missed, but let me put it this way: “They have just scratched to surface.”

    For the Christian Church to try and tackle this subject, I would suggest they look to their own history. There is a saint who seldom gets remembered these days, at least in the Anglican Communion, but to me he is one of the most fascinating saints in the history of Christianity. I speak of St Moses the Black.

    Moses was an Ethiopian, and of immense physical size and prowess. He was a born leader. He started life as a slave in the house of an Egyptian official in the middle of the 4th Century. He was caught thieving, left his slave status without formal leave, and established a band of brigands who were the terror of the Lower Egypt. If he was thwarted, he always got revenge on those responsible. There are some remarkable details, which I’ll skip.

    The next we hear of Moses, he is a brother at the monastery of Petra in the desert of Skete. No one knows how he was converted to Christianity, but he was. When he was attacked by four robbers in his cell, he overpowered them, tied them up, slung them over his back, took them to the church, and dropped them on the floor saying “I am not allowed to hurt anybody, so what do you want me to do with these?” The monks were speechless. Moses converted them. Placing himself under the guidance of St Isidore, Moses grew in spiritual strength. Finally his fame became such that Theophilus, Archbishop of Alexandria heard about him and made him a priest, with the added quip after the ceremony, “Now, Father Moses, the black man is made white,” to which Moses replied with a smile, “Only outside! God knows that inwardly I am yet dark.”

    When a raid of the Berbers was threatened, Moses sent his monks to hide, but remained with seven companions to be murdered. Moses died in his 75th year, and was buried at the monastery of Dair al-Baramus, where he still lays.

    We, the Church of Jesus of Nazareth, called the Christ, should treat every human, no matter how black they may seem, inside or out, like he or she is a possible St Moses the Black. Skin color is meaningless to Christians. Look at the person in front of you and treat them as would Jesus have done.

    When the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was sold out in the Democratic Convention of 1964 in Atlantic City by Lyndon Johnson and his cronies, the spirit of the Civil Rights movement took a big hit. Two things, in my opinion, caused this. First was the rise of Black Power, which placed a new wall between Blacks and Whites. The second was the shifting of White peace makers away from racism and against the war in Vietnam. I remember sitting around in the gloom of the MFDP meeting room and saying something that I still believe; that the only way racism in the US will eventually disappear is if people of different skin colors married and raised the next generations as racial mixtures. That did not happen in 1964, but it is starting to happen now. Good.

    But the job of the Church is to treat every human being so as to save his or her soul, and live in love and charity with all, just like Jesus enjoined us so many times.


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