Winsome Sears, a Virginia politician, waves the flag in support of opponents of the teaching of critical racial theory on June 30. Michael Blackshire / The Washington Post via Getty Im
A middle-aged black man walks up to the terrace of a coffee shop in Ausburn, Virginia, a small town 40 minutes from Washington. "Excuse me, are you Scott Mineo?" He asks. Mineo: "Is that good or bad?" "Well, I've been listening to him on television," replies the other. And then they engage in a long exchange of 'I did not say that', 'we are actually saying the same thing' ... "We will have to tell the children that George Washington had slaves," blurts out the man, who does not identify himself. "Okay, but also more things," Mineo replies, "do you think I'm a racist?"
It all ends with the black man helping the white man to pick up the junk and take them inside the premises - it has started to rain - and with a handshake. We are in Loudoun County, the richest in the United States, a suburb close to the capital of power that in recent years has been migrating from Republican to moderate and Democratic fiefdom. Mineo, a 49-year-old white security analyst, has started a parental crusade against what he sees as racial indoctrination in schools and resentment of white children. He has launched a website called Parents Against Critical Theory and has created an anonymous record so that students can upload recordings of what teachers say in class. "We will expose everyone who does it," Mineo says.
Loudon exemplifies the tension raging across the United States over how to deal with racism in schools, and a key aspect, as the conversation with the stranger demonstrates, is the teaching of history. Is slavery an accident, a stain within a tale of greatness, or rather a foundational element of America? Does the legacy of that stain explain the current inequalities? Were the founding fathers beautiful people with some contradiction or types plagued by them?
As a result of the mobilizations against racism after the death of George Floyd, in 2020, many schools have reinforced their talks and educational programs against discrimination and systemic racism and, with them, the conservative reaction has also ignited, with crusades such as Scott Mineo's or a bunch of laws. A string of Republican states - Texas, Idaho, Oklahoma or Tennessee, among others - have introduced or passed regulations to restrict the way the story is told.
The Tennessee Assembly, for example, passed a bill last May that prohibits schools from any teaching that an individual should feel “responsibility” for past actions by other members of their race;
or that someone, because of their race, "is inherently privileged" or that they promote "resentment."
Ohio uses identical language in various sections of its bill, vetoing teachers from teaching that slavery was anything other than "a betrayal or failure of America's true founding principles, which include liberty and equality."
The gaseous of forbidden concepts - At what point is a teacher who talks about racism saying that being white carries privilege?
Or is it generating resentment towards whites? - has set off alarms about freedom of expression.
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White historian David Blight, professor of African American Studies at Yale University, warns that every country has a past that makes its citizens uncomfortable.
“The conservative movement has been trying for half a century, intermittently, to roll back the teaching of the most uncomfortable part of our history, because they believe that our duty is to train patriots, but we do not educate young people just to be only patriots, we educate them so they better understand the society in which they live and that can make them better patriots, "says Blight by phone.
The laws in place, he believes, "are horrible, anti-intellectual, undemocratic, a misuse of history to produce a certain type of citizen."
The underlying debate is about treating slavery - abolished in 1865, almost 100 years after the founding of the country - as one more chapter in American history or a basic element of it.
In his view, "they do not want to face that [slavery] was central to the identity of the American nation, its development and growth, in the Civil War."
One of the central elements of this dispute is the so-called Critical Racial Theory, whose meaning has been distorted, as in any good intellectual and political polemic worth its salt.
Today it can be seen used, especially from the right, to identify any analysis that addresses racism as a systemic problem in the United States - not individual, or specific - and, in the school environment, any activity or workshop that focuses on discrimination on the grounds of race.
A mother yells at the Loudoun County school board meeting on June 22. Evelyn Hockstein / Reuters
Critical Racial Theory is a theoretical framework from the world of Law that began to be forged in the 1970s by the hand of academics, such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, who study civil rights movements.
that race is a social construction and racism is something that goes beyond personal prejudices, that the legal system is configured in a way that sustains and encourages the supremacy of whites over blacks.
For this reason, they conclude, the conquests of that time had not succeeded in eradicating social injustice.
It can be considered an official intellectual movement since 1989, when its promoters organized the first working session under that title, but now it has become a fetish expression of conservatives in the battle for education. Last March, Christopher Rufo, a researcher at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, said openly on his Twitter account: “We have managed to leave its mark - 'critical racial theory' - in the public conversation and they continue to add negative perceptions. At some point we will turn it into something toxic and put all those cultural ravings under that category. "
Another of the protagonists of this brawl is Project 1619, a historical analysis of how slavery shaped American institutions in the political, social and economic fields. Published in
The New York Times
in August 2019, and devised by the reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, the name refers to the date on which the first Africans arrived on American soil, it asks if that is the date on which it should be consider the founding of the United States and vindicate the contributions of black Americans to the formation of the country.
Generally applauded for the approach, it has received criticism from historians of different countries for some considerations, such as the birth of the country, or the pessimistic picture of the progress obtained, among others. A year after its publication, amidst the wave of protests over the death of George Floyd, attention was redoubled on the project and then-President Donald Trump took it as an example of the “toxic propaganda” that divided the country and announced the creation of the 1776 Commission to promote a "patriotic education."
Marvin Lynn, Professor of Education at the University of Portland, has applied the critique of Racial Critical Theory to the field of the educational system as a way to address inequalities in that system, but he rejects that this theory is being taught in the classroom. Lynn, a 50-year-old black man, regrets the way the past was told to him. “They taught me that America is a great country and that the founding fathers were honest men of great integrity. I did not hear from Sally Hemmings, who was a slave to Thomas Jefferson and who had children from Jefferson as his slave, until I became an adult, "he explains. Lynn is the father of 19, 15 and 13 year old boys. These, he says, went most of the time to public schools and "learned nothing of their history as black people, nothing of the past in Africa." In his opinion,"This movement wants to further restrict the curriculum, it is really a racist movement."
In Loudon County the fight goes way beyond history. A group of parents, including Mineo, has sued the County School Board alleging that teachers have incorporated "radical and controversial political theories" into programming and are asking children to support them under penalty of retaliation, in addition to systems of complaints of discrimination that make them "police against freedom of expression." The latest meetings with parents have turned into brawls, which are the meat of social networks, and threats have arrived on Facebook. In a group called "Anti-racist Father of Loudon", of 600 members, those who were against the programs were mentioned with names and surnames and there was talk of exposing them, the screenshots reached the media and conservative groups, who disseminated them as evidence of harassment.Several members of the "anti-racist" group received threats.
Parents against the racism program demand the withdrawal of six of the council members. His communication chief, Wayne Byard, explains that calls and emails from parents regarding Critical Racial Theory, about what is not being taught in schools, "number in the hundreds."
Scott Mineo, who comments on two occasions that his daughter has a boyfriend of Hispanic origin and, in the past, another black, assures that he is not against teaching about slavery in schools, but “the whole story, not only selected parts ”. For example, he misses the talk of "very prominent black figures who had slaves, because not only whites had slaves." He is unable to cite how many blacks had slaves in the United States or how important they were, he only conceded: "There were more white slave owners than black owners." And he adds: "Today there are many more slaves than centuries ago and nobody talks about them, sex slaves, human trafficking, medical slaves, used for research ...".
Martin Luther King said that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it leans towards justice.
The world needs to think about it.
Professor Blight points out that the United States has a history of "tragedy and conflict, like any other country," but Americans have always had the idea that history must be progress.
"We want to think that we are always getting better, that we have always solved our problems, and sometimes we have, we have even helped the world, as with the Second World War, but there are others that we have not solved and we have to confront", he adds.
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