We need to examine and understand all of America's history

Bob Buckley
Legal perspectives
Bob Buckley

I promised two weeks ago that I would write about critical race theory this week. I had more email responses to my last column than to any of the previous 403 that I had written, and all were very kind, probably because I had not yet taken a stand on CRT. If you have been waiting in anticipation to see if I embrace it or scorn it, you will be disappointed.

I suspect many people who scorn CRT and even legislate against its teaching don’t fully understand it. I have read much about it, but still do not fully understand it. I think you have to be a graduate level student to really grasp its meaning. I have a degree in history with a concentration on American history. I completed my undergraduate education nearly 50 years ago, and only remnants of my education are deeply embedded in my mind.

I did have a course in Black history taught by a Black professor. One of his assignments to a classroom full of white students was to interview five Black people. I suspect that the professor gave this assignment because most of us had not spent much time with Black people; that this was five years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the riots that followed were fresh in everyone’s mind.

My parents were not racists and were well-respected in the Black community. We had a Black babysitter/housekeeper, Ivona Hambright, who helped my mother raise me and my seven siblings. She was a part of our family. Several Black families lived a couple of blocks away, and I still consider many of them friends today. Racism was not an option in our household, so I did not need to be enlightened. What I did need was historical perspective that my history education at UMKC did not provide.

Until recently, I knew nothing about the Tulsa race massacre, or that slavery continued in Texas and other Southern states for a few months after General Lee surrendered at Appomattox on April 9, 1865, until Order No. 3 was proclaimed on June 19, 1865. We now have a national holiday to remember that momentous occasion. The Senate passed the legislation creating the holiday by unanimous consent and the vote in the house was 415-14 so there was not much controversy.

I grew up three blocks from the 33rd president of the United States, and although I learned from one of my 1973 interviews with a Black security guard at the First National Bank that Truman desegregated the armed forces, I did not know the story of his transformation.

I live in Jackson County and have Cherokee Indian ancestry, but I did not know the story of the Trail of Tears and how Andrew Jackson ignored an 1832 Supreme Court decision that opposed relocation and ordered the forced march of the Cherokee tribes and others from North Carolina and Georgia to Oklahoma.

I do not think we should rename our county or tear down Jackson’s statue. Nor do I think we should remove all of the Confederate statues around the country. It is part of our history and provides a teaching moment, but if we are going to teach about Confederate heroes, we also need to tell the story of segregation, the fallacious separate but equal doctrine and Jim Crow laws that dominated the south for 100 years after the Civil War.

Critical race theory is a body of legal scholarship and an academic movement of civil-rights scholars and activists that seeks to critically examine law as it intersects with issues of race in the United States and to challenge mainstream liberal approaches to racial justice. The principles of CRT are that racism and disparate racial outcomes are the result of complex, changing and often subtle social institutional prejudices on the part of individuals. CRT provides that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant. CRT claims that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy. It also contends that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system. Frankly, it is so complex that it can only effectively be studied at the graduate level in college.

Opponents say that it requires us to identify ourselves and each other on characteristics such as skin color, gender, and sexual orientation and pits us against one another. They claim it is divisive and even racist to examine the role of race in U.S. systems and institutional structures.

Others say that it is “much ado about nothing” and CRT has been around since the early 1970s and has never gained much traction. Racism exists today and may be more prevalent than it was 50 years ago. Is it wrong to talk about it and understand it?

I agree with General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking military officer in the country, who testified before Congress recently and said: “I do think it’s important actually for those of us in uniform to be open-minded and be widely read.” He said: “I’ve read Karl Marx. I’ve read Lenin. That doesn’t make me a communist. So, what is wrong with understanding, having some situational understanding about the country for which we are here to defend?”

Critics will say that while CRT is not studied or taught, it can permeate the classrooms by forcing students to identify their differences. I do think it is appropriate to encourage students to accept their differences and to understand how racism and bigotry affect others. However, if the seeds of racism and bigotry are planted at home, education will likely have little effect. I just hope and pray that we can have civil discourse about these issues.

Bob Buckley is an attorney in Independence. Email him at bbuckley@wagblaw.com.