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Critical Race Theory And Huck Finn

June 22, 2021

During the pandemic, I reread Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Some readers will ask why I start off a post about the latest culture war, created by conservative Republicans, with a classic piece of literature? I will get to the point shortly.

It would be almost impossible not to know that all across the nation Republican-led legislatures have either passed bills, or are entertaining the notion, to ban or limit schools from teaching that racism is infused in American institutions.  Not being able to refute the matter, elected Republicans have undertaken a vigilant proactive move to utterly dictate how historical racism in America is presented in our classrooms.

At the core of this issue is the degree to which critical race theory, which is an argument that first registered in colleges and university settings, now should be treated in our public schools. The question is if students should learn about historical patterns of racism that are molded and shaped into laws and our institutions? Then, should students be taught how the consequences of those actions are reflected in our modern times?

America’s original sin–the owning of other people as property–is not something that, because it happened in a by-gone era of our nation, it, therefore, can be papered over with a listing of all the ways we have strived to meet our ideals. That can no more be the end of the discussion than a mere short lesson about how Native Americans were removed from their lands, or the Chinese workers who toiled building railroads were horribly mistreated, or in the 1940s Japanese internment destroyed lives.

At some point, there must be a real reckoning with the past. The increased public awareness about things from housing segregation, red-lining, voter disenfranchisement, how criminal justice policy in the 1990s create unfair outcomes, and the legacy of enslavement on Black Americans all require honest discussions.

One way to achieve that is by tackling the fact that built into our society are layers of systemic racism. While it is very true that our nation has made tremendous strides for social justice it also needs stating that highlighting our misdeeds along the way, and the manner in which they still exist, is a path for national understanding and growth.

But with that attempt at understanding comes the awareness of being uncomfortable.  One of the reasons this issue has generated so much blowback is due to the degree to which it makes people grasp the larger delusions we collectively have as a nation about ‘how well off’ we are with race relations. 

This week in the Washington Post conservative nationally syndicated columnist Michael Gerson wrote that he now understands that systemic racism is real.

I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood of a middle-class suburb in a Midwestern city. I went to a middle-class high school, with middle-class friends, eating middle-class fried bologna sandwiches. And for most of my upbringing, this seemed not only normal but normative. I assumed this was a typical American childhood.

Only later did I begin to see that my normality was actually a social construction. By the time I was growing up in the 1970s, St. Louis no longer had legal segregation. But my suburb, my neighborhood and my private high school were all outcomes of White flight. The systems of policing, zoning and education I grew up with had been created to ensure one result: to keep certain communities safe, orderly and pale.

This is what I mean by systemic racism. If, on my 13th birthday, all the country’s laws had been suddenly, perfectly and equally enforced, my community would still have had a massive hangover of history. The structures and attitudes shaped during decades and centuries of oppression would still have existed. Legal equality in theory does not mean a society is justly constituted.

For me, part of being a conservative means taking history seriously. We do not, as Tom Paine foolishly claimed, “have it in our power to begin the world over again.” We live in an imperfect world we did not create and have duties that flow from our story.

There is an important moral distinction between “guilt” and “responsibility.” It is not useful, and perhaps not fair, to say that most White people are guilty of creating social systems shaped by white supremacy. But they do have a responsibility as citizens, and as moral creatures, to seek a society where equal opportunity is a reality for all.

Gerson’s seeking to understand the issue, along with his reaching out via his column is the type of dialogue our nation requires at this time.  Looking within as we also watch the nation around us can provide answers.

As it did for Huck Finn. 

The Mississippi River was a large adventure for Huck.  Travel by night, tie the raft up on shore during daylight.  The raft meant freedom, but as he traveled further South he took in what the river provided for sights.  He saw the small towns and the ills that confront those like his friend Jim, a slave who is recaptured.  He then needs to ponder his values and moral compass with the added experiences he gains.

So it is with all of us. 

As we listen, read, talk with others, and gain insight into the views of others who share information about systemic racism we too need to follow the footsteps akin to Huck.

Ponder our values and moral compass.

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