Recent public debate over the validity of critical race theory and its place in this nation’s social and political narrative might feel new, but neither the concept of CRT nor subversive attempts to discredit its truth are novel. Indeed, Christians need look no further than the Bible for examples of people in power suppressing the truth in a desperate effort to remain in control. Leaders behind anti-CRT efforts are playing a similar hand today.
Critical race theory is a term coined by legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society. The methodology is rooted in established fact that race is a social construct and racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice but is also deliberately institutionalized within the systems, policies and praxis of this nation.
As noted researcher and educator Joy DeGruy has shared with me, “Critical race theory is the practice of truth telling, and truth telling has been the bane of human supremacy theories since the beginning of time.”
I am reminded of the plight of the Hebrew people in Egypt as recorded in the book of Exodus.
“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8 NJPS).
This one verse reveals so much more than its 11 words may imply on the surface. This verse alone alerts us to a regime change, the king’s dissociation from the recent history of Egypt, and Joseph’s role in stabilizing the country.
The continued proliferation of Hebrew children threatened the perceived security of this new king and his regime. The text suggests that this new king enslaved Hebrew people and killed their male babies to secure Egyptian dominance.
The text goes on to unfold the disastrous effects of this king’s acts: devastation of Egypt’s food supply, economic despair and, ultimately, the death of their own children.
In both Scripture and present-day society, history has a tendency to repeat itself as it flows through generations, often uninterrupted by facts. For instance, America has created a sanitized narrative that conveniently celebrates Christopher Columbus as the great discoverer of North America. In fact, Columbus never set foot on North American land, and the continent was already occupied by millions of Indigenous people before he ever set sail.
The mythical retelling creates a false narrative of white dominance and erases the annihilation of millions of people and the church-sanctioned desecration of land.
The threat posed by truth telling, in a country formed around a narrative created to preserve white dominance among changing demographics, is why the correction of such history has become a lightning rod in our national discourse. In 2016, a new leader arose in our country who was willfully disconnected from the truth of this nation’s history.
Such dissociation is to be expected in a country where textbooks have been slow to incorporate the factual truths of colonization and slavery. The resurgence of white nationalism and white supremacist groups is also to be expected in a country that refuses to condemn its brutal racist intentions and the laws and systems established to maintain a culture of white dominance in our society.
These ahistorical campaigns are rooted in the same fear of losing white power that has undergirded much of this country’s institutional leadership; that fear erupted into panic with the election of Barack Obama as president and manifested starkly in his successor.
Several racially motivated fringe groups have orchestrated deep-pocketed crusades against truth telling following well-organized and unprecedented protests about police violence and the disproportionate rates of incarcerated Black and brown people.
Faced with centuries of false narratives jeopardized by historical accuracy, opponents are pushing back against demands for racial justice that have included efforts to remove prominently placed statues and memorials paying homage to a defeated Confederacy, and the pursuit of legal remedies to the economic, health and voting disparities normalized in this nation.
Former President Donald Trump’s executive order banning federal agencies, contractors and grant recipients from conducting trainings and programs that address systemic racism opened the floodgates to a full-out war against racial equity itself.
The fallout continues to stop individuals and organizations from teaching and leading from a place of historical integrity.
Educators have been fired, courses have been canceled, and since the order’s rescission at the federal level, legislation opposing such truth telling has been proposed in at least 28 states and enacted in eight (Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas).
More than a half-century of focused efforts to re-right the exclusive, misleading untruths about our nation’s history are under attack in a crusade, as my friend Jim Wallis says each time I see him, “to maintain our current white-dominated democracy in the face of changing demography.”
The question to examine regarding critical race theory is not the validity of the scholarship. The empirical evidence for its validity is overwhelming; the sociopolitical impact of the truth it reveals is enshrined in our founding documents. The question is, What will be the cost of denying that truth?
Our freedom is tethered to confrontation of our racist past, confession of its impact on our present and commitment to living into a new way of being, together.
As a Christian, I need no greater commission forward than the words of Jesus himself: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NASB).
In both Scripture and present-day society, history has a tendency to repeat itself as it flows through generations, often uninterrupted by facts.