Bookman: Hysteria over ‘critical race theory’ is to deny bigotry still with us

Columnist Jay Bookman writes that the notion that institutional racism is a thing of the past is disproven by the fact that little more than a year ago two Georgia prosecutors decided against pursuing charges against a group of armed white men in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black. File/Georgia Recorder

Prodded by Gov. Brian Kemp, the state Board of Education last week waded into the controversy over “critical race theory,” or more accurately, into a cartoon version of the theory that has been ginned up by Fox News and the conservative entertainment industry to keep its viewers in a state of racial panic.

“The United States of America is not a racist country, and … the state of Georgia is not a racist state,” the board informed us in a resolution passed in a specially called meeting. Furthermore, the board instructed Georgia educators not to teach that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” or that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual’s race.”

These are not, ordinarily, the kind of controversial sentiments that require hastily called meetings to endorse, but the context here is important. Kemp and the Board of Education are following the example of other conservatives all around the country who are rushing to pass similar laws and resolutions. They have convinced themselves that white is the new black, that schools and universities are engaged in a conspiracy to discriminate on the basis of race, and that this time the target of that discrimination is white people.

I know, I know: It’s a ridiculous claim. But if you can convince millions of people that non-existent vote fraud cost Donald Trump the election, in contradiction to every piece of available evidence, then you can convince them of almost anything if they want to believe it hard enough.

In its resolution, the board also attempted to downplay the roles that slavery and racism have played in our nation’s history. As it views things, Georgia’s schoolchildren should be taught that racism and slavery were never central to American values, but were mere “deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”

That is simply false. Racism and slavery were indeed central to our founding, to the point that those supposed “deviations” and “betrayals” were enshrined in the Constitution, our nation’s founding document. Here in Georgia, slavery may have been banned for the first 15 years of the colony’s existence, but by 1750 that ban was lifted because white settlers complained it was impossible to make money here without Black slaves to work and die in the brutal heat and humidity.

If we are to take justified pride in those good things that our ancestors accomplished, in the nation that they built — if we erect statues to them and name schools and buildings and cities after them, if we warm ourselves a bit in their reflected glory, as the heirs to their greatness — is it not then dishonest to pretend that their mistakes do not also echo down into our own times? What wonderful magic is it that only the good they did lives on after them, and in us, while their evil somehow died with them, without leaving a trace?

There is no such magic. There is only blindness, willful blindness. Heritage and history are not a buffet line, where you can pick and choose the things you like while ignoring the distasteful.

Since 1926, a statue of Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, has sat in the U.S. Capitol as one of two Georgia heroes designated by the state. In celebrating Georgia’s secession from the Union, Stephens had explained that the cornerstone of the Confederacy “rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” Stephens’ statue is in Washington because of, not despite, that kind of rhetoric. How is that not institutionalized racism?

John Brown Gordon statue. Jill Nolin/Georgia Recorder

Look at Stone Mountain, a state park at the site of the rebirth of the KKK, a park that was created to celebrate the Confederacy and that is still dedicated to that cause in state law. Look at the lawns of the state Capitol, dominated by an equestrian statue of Confederate Gen. John Brown Gordon, who founded the original KKK here in Georgia.

Many older Georgia adults were taught in school that it was tariffs, not slavery, that drove creation of the Confederacy, because the admission that the cause was slavery was deemed “divisive” and might reflect poorly on the dominant white power structure. It was only 50 years ago that we desegregated our schools. It was only 20 years ago that we managed to strip the Confederate battle emblem from the Georgia flag, and the man who led that fight, Gov. Roy Barnes, was then defeated for re-election in large part because of backlash against his leadership.

And it was barely a year ago that two separate Georgia prosecutor offices decided that the murder of an unarmed Black jogger by a group of armed white men in broad daylight, on a public street, was not a crime worthy of prosecution. You’ve probably seen the video of Ahmaud Arbery’s last moments – those prosecutors had seen it too, yet somehow they decided that no crime had been committed and no arrests should be made. That decision was driven by governmental, institutional racism. It is alive and thriving, in our time, and Fox News notwithstanding, white people are not its target.

Just this week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson launched into a diatribe complaining about refugees from Congo being resettled in largely white communities such as Lewiston, Maine, describing it as part of a plot by the Biden administration “to change Maine’s demographics as well as the population mix in every other state in the union” to undermine white control. If racism is mere “deviations, betrayals and failures” to live up to the authentic founding principles of the United States, then those deviations and betrayals continue among us, right now, in places of power and influence.

We have made enormous progress in this country against racism, and it is essential that we teach that too, both because it is true and because by telling it we create hope for still further progress. But that progress has never come easy, and at every step of the way, we have had to battle those who claim that it is not racism and bigotry that divide us, but those who dare to point out the continued existence of racism and bigotry.

It’s what was said about the abolitionists before the Civil War, about Reconstruction after the war, about those who fought lynching in the 1920s and segregation in the 1950s and 1960s.

The current hysteria over “critical race theory,” and the actions of Kemp and the Board of Education, are merely the latest manifestations of that long and unfortunate tradition.