Guest columnist Floyd Cheung: The critical job of learning about country’s racial past

  • President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at Smith Reynolds Airport, Tuesday, Sept. 8, in Winston-Salem, N.C. AP

Published: 9/20/2020 3:00:21 PM

President Trump’s directive via the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to cease anti-racist education in the federal government obstructs efforts at creating a more just world.

The directive bans “any training on ‘critical race theory’ ... that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”

The repetition of the word “inherently” is a canard. No country, race, or ethnicity is inherently good or bad. Countering such generalizations is Critical Race Theory 101. Trump would prefer a “pro-American,” “patriotic curriculum,” but as Robert Kennedy reminds us, “The sharpest criticism often goes hand in hand with the deepest idealism and love of country.”

As an educator in the field of critical race theory, I have encountered Trump’s brand of resistance before, though not his closed-mindedness. About one-third of the way through a semester, an earnest white student once asked during a class discussion, “Professor Cheung, wouldn’t it be better if you didn’t teach us all of this? It would be easier to live life.”

I paused for a moment, and wondered out loud whether other students had an opinion. A student of color spoke up: “Some of us don’t have the privilege of remaining ignorant.” To her credit, the white student received this comment thoughtfully, and everyone kept learning that semester.

Trump famously avoids reading books and intelligence briefings. Unfortunately, he’s now willing his ignorance on others. Some may comply with his order. Some of us don’t have the privilege of remaining ignorant.

What if all of us were to learn about the connections between America’s racial past and its racial present? Such an education could help one understand the link between the institution of slavery and the overpolicing of Black people today. It might connect the failure of making good on the promise to former slaves of “40 acres and a mule” and the fact that while 74% of white families own a home, only 44% of Black families do. And an anti-racist curriculum might include the fact that the GI Bill helped millions of white soldiers get a college education while leaving most Black veterans behind.

As the scholar and author Michelle Alexander recently wrote, “We must face our racial history and our racial present. We cannot solve a problem we do not understand.”

If we are to address our nation’s challenges, anti-racist trainings are just the beginning.

Floyd Cheung, of Florence, is vice president of the Office for Equity and Inclusion and Professor of English and American Studies at Smith College.

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