The vitriol flooding social media and libertarian political advertising over Critical Race Theory is troubling. Angry voices define it as something it isn’t, and are disinterested in engaging in reasoned conversation about it. They simply condemn CRT as an evil encouraging race based hatred further driving racial divisions. It works with some portion of the electorate, further convincing them that anything labeled liberal or black friendly is destroying the nation.
Hysteria over CRTdistracts from a more subtle reality explored by an August 12, 2021 PEW report: “Deep Divisions in American’s Views of Nation’s Racial History.” It examines American attitudes about whether it’s a good thing to teach a more comprehensive history that includes more about the non white population. The report also examines attitudes about whether society is structured to make it difficult for non whites to enjoy the same rights as whites, and whether there has been significant progress to make things better over the last fifty years.
On whether American history should include more from the perspective of non white peoples, about 46% of Republicans say no. On the other hand, 79% of Democrats say yes. More detailed shading is offered with scales in steps from conservative to liberal for each party, but the difference between those who identify with one party or the other is significant. Perhaps more significant than easily recognized, 54% of Republicans are OK with a more complete version of our history.
Differences are more pronounced on the question of whether America’s laws and institutions have systematically made it more difficult for non whites to enjoy the fullness of American rights and opportunities. Asked if major and minor fixes are required, only 21% of Republicans says yes. Democrats offer a resounding 73% yes. Black respondents were more convinced that major fixes are needed than were whites, regardless of party. At the same time, hispanics and asians agreed work was needed but were more ambivalent about how much.
Has the nation made racial progress in the last fifty years? 71% of Republicans said yes, compared to 29% of Democrats. What about the continuing problem of white privilege? On the whole, Republicans don’t believe there is any white privilege.
The data give me guarded hope that useful conversation can take place across the political divide. If over half of those who identify with Republicans think it’s OK to teach a more comprehensive American history, we have something to work with, even as some are caterwauling about CRT. That came through for me in an exchange with a very conservative friend who is adamantly opposed to whatever CRT is, but understands why a more complete version of history is important, and isn’t threatened by it. All he wants is for the good and worthy parts of the stories we treasure to be preserved. There is much that is good and worthy, but he’s afraid it will be trashed.
The question of systemic racism is more problematic. Obstacles to full access to American rights and privileges are deeply embedded in laws, regulations, and standard practices, in spite of constitutional amendments and civil rights laws. That’s just fact, but it’s invisible to a wide swath of the white population, especially to those who have struggled hard against odds of their own to make a decent life. Moreover, hispanics and asians don’t share the same slavery heritage as black Americans. American Indians were not considered in this study, which is itself emblematic of how invisible they can be even to those who care. A problem that some deny exists, and is all but invisible to others, is not a problem easily resolved.
The flip side is the question about how much progress has been made in resolving racial issues in the last fifty years. Republican leaning Americans think we’ve made a lot of progress, so much so that it’s hard to see what’s to complain about. They’re not dismissing the need for progress. It’s not a negative. It’s a good thing, and they believe we’ve done well at it. Democrats overwhelmingly think the opposite. We have not made much progress at all. It’s not uniform. Blacks and more liberal whites think little progress has been made. Asians, hispanics and centrist Democrats are a bit more optimistic. The point is, it’s hard to convince someone that more needs to be done if they believe they’ve already done a lot. How much is too much?
The way forward will require each side to give up some of the political weaponry they most like to use. I hope we’ve learned that yelling insults and curses at each other doesn’t work. When both sides have honed their Saul Alinsky and Roy Cohn tactics to a fine edge, and they’re the only weapons in their kits, absolutely nothing of value can be accomplished. Let me put it this way: we need a lot less of Jim Jordan of Ohio and a lot more of the late Barbara Jordan of Texas.
Barbara Jordan: M.C., TX 18, 1973-79