After the Tide: Critical Race Theory in 2021

American flag
Photo by Jon Cherry/Getty Images
Baratunde Thurston
November 11, 2021

I am not a parent, but I have been a child, and I have friends who are parents, and I know for sure that no parent really knows what they are doing, and that the job is hard. Covid made the job harder, and I have so much empathy for the added stress that parents are facing in this moment. But there’s something disturbing happening with parenting in this country. Many white parents are losing their ever-loving minds over “Critical Race Theory,” something that many of them cannot define.

I’ll share a partial definition from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which I find to be a credible source on the matter. C.R.T. is “an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society,” and critically (see what I did there?), that racism isn’t merely a matter of individual actions and biases but something deliberately embedded in our legal, economic, and social systems. Many of the disparate outcomes we see in health, wealth, and justice are the result of that system’s design, the one that made it hard for Black people to build wealth through homeownership by, for example, systematically denying home loans to us for generations—a fact so egregious that the Fair Housing Act had to be created to correct it, in 1968, and one that remains still unresolved. 

C.R.T. is academic jargon. It’s not used in everyday conversations by anyone I know involved in bending the arc of this nation toward liberty and justice for all. It’s certainly not taught in K-12 schools. But it’s become a catch-all phrase that serves as mind-numbing kryptonite for a lot of white parents who project their fears of what any acknowledgement of racism might mean for their worldview. While some parents understand that an honest teaching of history requires us to explain our failures alongside our victories, another group refuses to face those facts and chooses to interpret C.R.T. as something more like “catastrophic racial tyranny.” 

This last group, by and large, is flooding school board meetings and threatening teachers. They are screaming on social media. They are voting for candidates who promise them that they’ll never let a godless, un-American teacher fill their kids’ minds with hatred or guilt or shame for their identity. These parents have been whipped into a frenzy by demagogues like Tucker Carlson and institutions like Hillsdale College that tell them their children are being indoctrinated by “cultural marxism,” which they also can’t define, and that the schools must be stopped. 

It’s true that the world as white parents know it has been changing, slowly at first and then suddenly faster. In the nationwide reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd, progressive notions like diversity, equity, and inclusion—sanitized for the C-suite as D.E.I.—found more profound applications. Across the country, institutions began to grapple with what it would mean to take those professed ideals more seriously. The term “critical race theory” became a stand-in for a constellation of incremental but meaningful changes in the culture, encompassing everything from the proliferation of D.E.I. training in businesses to the skepticism of standardized testing and whitewashed history textbooks in schools.

But I think what’s underlying the backlash today is actually less specific, and more elemental. Over the past couple years, white kids were exposed to a vision of the country that many of their parents had shielded them from. They saw a law enforcement officer slowly murder Floyd. They joined a multi-racial coalition of folks in the streets to reject that idea of America. And they learned. Online, in the classroom, and in the streets, these kids learned that their country was founded on principles of freedom and opportunity and also violent expansionism, mass murder, and forced labor. They returned from protests where they were teargassed for saying “Black Lives Matter,” or they logged off of Zoom school where their teachers explained the history of racial terror lynchings, or they lifted their heads from their TikToks where they learned about “systemic racism” and “redlining,” and these kids asked their parents: how could you allow this?

And the parents, already fed up with school closures and remote learning, got defensive and lashed out at someone else. Hazy generational frustrations with a leftward drift in the culture crystallized into resentment. Armed with Facebook Facts and Twitter Tirades, they blamed the schools, the teachers, and worst of all, the Democrats, for brainwashing their kids. Many expressed little sympathy for what teachers have been going through and skipped to the part where they demanded their kids be safe from any ideas that might challenge their identity—both their children’s and, more importantly, their own. 

To quote the television series Battlestar Galactica, “all of this has happened before, and all of this will happen again.” White backlashes against racial progress are as American as genetically modified apple pie. When we ended the institution of slavery, white lawmakers wrote the Black Codes to criminalize everyday living by Black Americans. When Black communities built their own wealth after being denied entry into the white Main Streets, white communities bombed and destroyed those businesses from Tulsa to Rosewood and beyond. When we integrated the public schools, white parents resisted, turned violent, and sought to protect their own children from being sullied by their fellow Americans. When we integrated pools and public parks, white-run governments often decided to drain those pools and close them instead. 

This is not metaphorical. In her book, The Sum of Us, Heather McGhee documents much of this zero-sum mentality in the story of a St. Louis, Missouri public pool that was once the largest in the country, capable of hosting up to 10,000 people. When a few Black residents showed up to use the pool they helped support with their tax dollars, in the summer of 1949, a white mob attacked them. Once a formal integration order was handed down by the courts, the white-run government literally drained the pool and closed it. This happened all across the country and ignited the growth of private (whites only) swimming clubs and backyard residential pools for those who could afford it. White people were willing to deny their own children access if it meant sharing. 

These moments aren’t just part of the historical record. We live with them now. When we elected our first Black president, peddlers of white grievance called him a monkey, a Muslim and a foreigner, and voted to succeed him with the online steak salesman who popularized Birtherism. When Nikole Hannah-Jones led the 1619 Project—an effort to reframe American history around the consequences of slavery and the lives of Black Americans—the Trump administration responded by releasing a rebuttal, the so-called 1776 Report, on MLK Day. 

So here we are, more than 400 years since the first enslaved Africans landed in Virginia, with many white parents hiding behind their progeny again, using education as an excuse to limit the knowledge their children have access to. The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson is a seminal work that’s been popular for generations, but we don’t talk nearly as much as we should about the miseducation of the white American. We’ve created a system of lies and myths and skin so thin that the mere idea of telling the whole truth about our nation inspires people to take up arms or protest a school board meeting to keep their children ignorant. 

I think we’ve been talking about this “critical race theory” frenzy all wrong. It’s not about turning kids against their nation or making white children ashamed of their whiteness. Regardless, progressives can’t win a debate over a theory that their opponents can’t even define. Instead, I want to reframe the conversation around a more fundamental question: what does it mean to love America?

I understand that no one wants to be a villain in their own story. We prefer to see ourselves as good or noble, even heroic. In my mind, I fly on the back of pterodactyls and deliver freedom upon the land in the form of delicious donuts that are somehow good for you. I don’t want anyone telling me I’m a Bad Person or worse, that my mother was rotten and wrong. So I can understand why so many white parents bristle at the idea of talking about the foundational role that racism has played in building this country. It’s like a national version of a Jerry Springer or Maury Povich episode, when the show’s guest finds out their daddy ain’t really their daddy. But for the country to be as great as its promise, we have to be willing to look at all parts of the story. 

I’ll use myself as an example. I had the best mother in the history of mothers, and I’ll fight you if you say otherwise. For most of my life, I considered my mother to be near saint status. She worked so hard to make sure that my sister and I got great educations and felt safe and nurtured. I survived D.C.’s crack epidemic and The War On Drugs and so many other threats because of my mother’s investment in me. This Black woman, born in 1940, managed to love herself despite a world designed to make her hate herself. Near. Saint. Status. When I wrote my memoir, How To Be Black, that’s the version of my mother I documented. 

It just wasn’t the entire story. Only in my 40s have I started to acknowledge that my mother wasn’t great at everything, didn’t prepare me for everything, and in fact may have made some choices that limited me in ways that no longer serve me. If the stereotypical child of Asian immigrants has a Tiger Mom, then I had a Panther Mom. She expected a lot from her children and had zero tolerance for anything she interpreted as “disrespectful.” She disconnected from people quickly whom she didn’t see as sufficiently loyal. She was afraid I’d have a negative view of her and wanted me to think of her as near-perfect, and so I judged myself by those same standards and learned to fear making mistakes of any kind. Yet, as I learned more about my mother’s life—she died in 2005—from my big sister and from my mother’s friends, I came to the shocking realization that she wasn’t perfect at all. Far from it. And when I stopped needing her to be perfect, I could let myself do the same. I freed my mother from this pedestal I’d sat her on and instead allowed us both to be whole human people. 

That level of knowledge has allowed me to love my mother with a depth I hadn’t previously understood. As I’ve made my own mistakes, I can see her in them and feel connected to our shared fallible humanity. This is about love, not politics, not school curricula, not yet. I want you to think about a relationship you consider to be loving: a partner, child, parent, or friend. I’m willing to bet that part of the foundation for that love is that this other person knows you deeply and vice versa. Many of us spend so much of our relationships, especially the early days, trying to hide things about ourselves, but eventually that other person learns things about us we’re not proud of, things we wouldn’t post on our LinkedIn, but things that are true. When we let someone know us at that level, we make ourselves vulnerable and, I think, we make love more possible. 

I admit it doesn’t feel good in the moment, for example, to have my wife see a part of me that I’m ashamed of, but when she does, and we talk about it, and she stays with me and I with her, we are stronger than before. She now loves that imperfect part of me, and I love the imperfect part of her, because the imperfect parts are what make us human. Love requires knowledge. If we love someone merely for all the wonderful things about them or because they only see the wonderful things in us… if we love someone only because they make us feel good about our idea of ourselves, then we’re not really loving them. We are using them. 

As it is with people, so too with nations which are simply collections of people.  We don’t just live in the United States. We are in a relationship with the United States. And if we’re going to love the nation, we have to be willing to know her fully, not just the parts of her that look good to us or make us feel good about ourselves. We have to know all of her: good, bad, beautiful, and ugly. We have to trust America enough to know America. 

Some of that history is racist, sexist, and downright gruesome. If we acknowledge that, we have a better chance of not repeating it. If we never learned it ourselves, we have to move past the embarrassment associated with such ignorance, and be willing to learn. Sooner is better, but never is the worst. Sometimes this means we have to trust our children enough to get an honest education, learn things we were never taught, and then let them teach us. That’s patriotism, and it’s progress. That’s seeing the entire country so that we have a chance to build a future that’s better for entire generations of kids. 

I am writing this because I, too, gained a deeper knowledge of America through continuing education. I learned by reading Valarie Kaur’s See No Stranger, which proposes using the language of love when talking about race. And from McGhee’s The Sum of Us, which is the best articulation of the false zero-sum game we’ve been playing in the U.S., in which we fear that one group’s gain must necessarily be another group’s loss. Her articulation of a “solidarity dividend” has re-upped my supply of hope in these hard times. And finally, from my sister Belinda Thurston, who way back in 2011 flagged the narrow version of my mother I had portrayed in my book—a piece of feedback I wasn’t yet ready to receive or process. 

I do not hate America. Our teachers do not hate America. And neither of us is trying to get white people to hate themselves. What I want is for all of us to know each other so we can be a nation, living on common land, building on common truths. Sometimes that will hurt. Sometimes we will be afraid of what we learn or ashamed of what we think it says about who we are. But I promise you, when we face and move through the fear and the shame, we find out those are merely steps on a longer journey that leads to shared belonging and increased strength. It leads to freedom.

Even as I write this, I’m remembering things my mother said that I haven’t thought about in a long time. While there are things I didn’t know or realize until later in life, there was a lot she let me in on early. When I was quite young, she shared what other parents would consider to be inappropriate family secrets with me: about our bankrupt financial situation, about my father’s abuses, about her own drug use prior to my birth. She told me she was sharing this because, “I want you to know these things so no one can use them against you in the future. I don’t want you to be blindsided by this down the line and have your entire world rocked.” 

If we had that same attitude about American history, we might not have been so easily provoked into infighting by disinformation campaigns, both foreign and domestic. We could have shrugged it off as old news that we’d already processed. But instead, we’ve resisted the truth, and so every time it emerges, we deny it and fight it, and we divide and weaken ourselves. We hold ourselves back. 

My mother was not perfect. The United States is not perfect. Perfection is unattainable. Yet my mother is still the best mother in the world, and we can still believe the United States is the best country in the world. Both can be true but only if we’re willing to know the whole truth.  

So, I want us to stop talking about “critical race theory” and start talking about what it means to love this country. I want us to stop burying our heads when someone shares an unflattering truth and instead embrace the discomfort and recognize it as a sign of growth. I want us to stop talking about “freedom” as if it means denying the truth and instead remember that living a lie is what holds us captive, and the truth is what sets us free. 

I’m ready to get to the part of the American story where we have processed our pain and used it to forge a stronger nation, where we can heal from our historic traumas and focus our energies on building that ever-elusive multi-racial democracy where everyone feels like they belong. But we cannot heal from injuries we do not acknowledge. We cannot grow from pain we refuse to feel. Let’s know America. Let’s love America. Let’s grow America.

This is the third installment of the series, After the Tide. Part I concerns five realizations about the current state of our multiracial democracy. Part II discusses the complexity of engaging with, and educating, the people most invested in our oppression.