Holding two different thoughts about the same phenomenon can be hard but morally important. Let me try to make such a case with regard to critical race theory, a theory helpfully described in a recent issue of the Tribune-Herald by Bryan Anderson of The Associated Press. I will return to that definition in a moment.
Here’s one thought:
When I was a boy (ages 8-14, from 1944-1951), I spent a considerable part of my summers on a cotton plantation in southeastern Arkansas managed by my maternal grandfather. An enduring memory: my brother and I riding around in my granddad’s pickup truck as he drove from field to field overseeing the hand-picking of cotton by black men, women and teenagers. This was prior to mechanical cotton pickers — at least prior to their use in southeastern Arkansas.
The farm was adjacent to Elaine, a one-street little burg with Dr. Trotter’s drug store, a grocery store, a café, a filling station, a liquor store and a theater showing movies on Friday and Saturday nights. That was it. In addition to the five summers when my brother and I spent so much time there, my entire family was in Elaine off and on for years and years and years — which is the point of the event I am about to relate.
While I was a senior at Baylor University (1958-59) I was in the library doing research and accidentally came across a story that absolutely stunned me. I still remember how shocked I was. Before me was a story about the deadliest racial conflict in the history of Arkansas, and one of the deadliest in the history of the United States. The story recounted the killing of up to 200 blacks by whites in a violent “race war” that erupted after black sharecroppers sought to organize a farmers’ union. When and where? In 1919 in little Elaine, Arkansas! Never in all my life had I gotten even a hint of such an event. Not a word from my parents (my mother grew up in Elaine — born in 1911 — and was there as an 8-year-old girl when it happened) or my grandparents. Not a word from anybody. It was as if the event had been mentally erased. It appeared to be a case of what has been called “organized forgetting.”
My lack of knowledge of the Elaine event is reminiscent of the experience many Tulsa citizens now say they have had about the Tulsa Race Massacre, the 100th anniversary of which has been prominently chronicled in the news recently. Two years after the Elaine killings, mobs of white people destroyed 35 square blocks of homes and businesses of black citizens in Tulsa, the single worst case of racial violence in American history. Yet many people who have now lived in Tulsa their whole lives indicate they had never heard of the horror.
Critical race theory first appeared “as a legal movement aimed at understanding, resisting and remediating how U.S. law and legal institutions ... have fostered and perpetuated racism and white supremacy.” But as Anderson’s piece and other recent discussions of critical race theory indicate, CRT is now often used as “a catch-all phrase for any discussion of systematic racism.” In that sense, how can we not grant what critical race theory wants us to acknowledge and to teach: that systematic racism was present in a vicious way at the founding of this country (slavery and the steady decimation of Native Americans), continued in a myriad of horrific ways throughout our country’s history (Elaine and Tulsa) and continues in subtle and not-so-subtle ways today.
Yet state legislators across the country, including in Texas, have rushed to prohibit or discourage the teaching of critical race theory to new generations. But as has now been frequently pointed out: To prohibit teaching that systematic racism has been a fundamental part of our identity as a nation is in itself an excellent example of systematic racism.
Now to my second thought: With regard to our country’s racism, we have made progress. That’s no consolation to the families and friends of George Floyd and other victims of latter-day racial injustice. I understand that, but culturally we have made progress and that, too, is an important thought for a reason I will try to spell out.
In the summer of 1958, the summer before my senior year in college, I was involved in a chaplain’s extern program at the Baptist hospital in Little Rock. On one occasion, the director of the program was leading a one-day seminar for 10 local ministers. Two were black. At 10 we took a break and walked across the street to a coffee shop. After we sat down, the waitress motioned a couple of us over. In a lowered voice, she said that she could not serve the Negroes and that we would have to leave. Returning to the table to report that is burned into my memory. Can you imagine how it burned into the souls of the two black ministers with us? But it is important to acknowledge with deep gratitude that such an occurrence is now inconceivable. Prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations was major moral progress in this country, and it came about as much because of individual businessmen and conscientious civic leaders as our laws and courts.
Part of Waco’s identity is the 1916 Ku Klux Klan-motivated mob lynching and burning of Jesse Washington, a 17-year-old black man. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries thousands of lynchings of blacks occurred, especially throughout the Southern states. Black chiefs of police now lead many Southern cities including, of course, Waco. Can we not be grateful, indeed, proud of that moral progress?
Peggy Noonan, a Wall Street Journal columnist and speechwriter for President Reagan, recently wrote a piece commending one of Bill Maher’s “Real Time” TV shows. A political liberal, Maher was calling the hand of his political companions for their unwillingness to acknowledge, indeed, to celebrate progress. Here is one of his many examples: In 1958 a Gallup Poll indicated that “only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage. Now Gallup doesn’t even bother to ask. But the last time they did, in 2013, 87% approved.”
Today it would surely be in the 90% range. From 4% to 90% or higher. That’s to be celebrated.
Recognizing and calling attention to moral progress is crucial because acknowledging that we have done better can inspire us, motivate us to do better still. As Noonan put it: America is like “a great continuing drama. We’re always sinning, sometimes wildly, but always looking to reform ourselves.” My point: Recognizing moments of reformation can be motivation for more reformation, so let’s not despise calling attention to and cherishing such moments.
One of my favorite American philosophers is the pragmatist Richard Rorty (1931-2007). In a marvelous passage he describes America as both a poem and a poet constantly revising the poem. Stories about who we have been and who we ought to be are “our attempts to forge a national moral identity.” As a nation, he argues, “we should face up to unpleasant truths about ourselves [the point of critical race theory], but we should not take those truths to be the last word about our national character. For our national character is still in the making.”
“Achieving Our Country,” the title of Rorty’s work, captures the moral challenge confronting us as we struggle to be better than we have been. Motivation for such a struggle can be the realization that at times we have become better, and that we have at times become better means that we can become better still. Or, as the old cowboy from Heartbreak, Texas, would put it: “We are flawed, but we are working toward the light.”
Robert Baird is emeritus professor of philosophy at Baylor University.