David Davidson-Methot: A sanitized version of America’s past does not build a better future
For the past month, columnist Terry McLaughlin has chosen to write about critical race theory, as it is supposedly undermining the public education system across the country.
Her column printed on July 1 was mostly a long quote from a letter she says was written by a disgruntled parent of a student at Brearly School in New York stating reasons why his daughter was being removed from the school. The parent, Andrew Gutmann, states: “We have not had systemic racism … since the civil rights reforms of the 1960s. … To state otherwise is a flat out misrepresentation of our country’s history and adds no understanding to any of today’s societal issues.”
I have no idea what Mr. Gutmann’s background, education, or socio-economic status may be, but it is clear he has never read “The New Jim Crow,” by Michelle Alexander, nor apparently “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson, nor any of the countless reports, research papers and news articles that contradict his simplistic and naive assertion that systemic racism was eliminated by the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Recent Supreme Court decisions have gutted two important sections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is allowing many Republican-dominated legislatures across the country to revise their voting laws (such as in Georgia and currently in Texas, and Arizona, and the list goes on and on) to address “election integrity.” Sorry, but these are solutions in search of a problem.
Mr. Trump’s own administration declared the 2020 election “the most secure in history.” Of course, Mr Trump, as recently as July 12 at the CPAC gathering in Dallas continued to spread the lie that he lost because the election was rigged. Interviews with attendees show how many are still in the thrall of this mass delusion — believing the lies told by Mr. Trump, and echoed by his acolytes like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, Sens. Hawley and Cruz, and even our own Reps. LaMalfa and McClintock, who voted against certifying the valid election results.
What is really happening is an attempt to skew the voter rolls to favor Republicans who fear losing ground as population and generational shifts change the political landscape — as we witnessed in Georgia recently, and as hinted at in Texas and Arizona.
There is a reason Republicans are running scared and trying to cheat their way to holding on to power. As Mr. Trump himself said, “If we let everyone vote, you’ll never get another Republican elected.”
This effort to control who votes is directly relevant to the question that Ms. McLaughlin, and the parent she quoted at length, raise about critical race theory and the assertion that systemic racism, far from having been vanquished in the ’60s, is still very much alive in today’s America. The Republican efforts at the state level to control who can vote is a prime example of this fact, to name just one of many.
Of course, another error made by both is the assumption that any mention or discussion of “systemic racism” is equivalent to critical race theory. Hence, by that faulty logic, any teacher in a high school social studies or American history class who broaches the subject of “systemic racism in American history” must be interjecting critical race theory into the classroom. This is, of course, nonsense.
One can’t fully discuss American history without acknowledging the many ways in which racism, theories of cultural and racial superiority, were acted out in countless ways in our past. Too many people who grew up in Tulsa, Okla., were never told about what happened there in June 1921. The same is true for those who grew up in various other states in the country.
This is by no means limited to the history of African Americans in this country. I grew up in Phoenix in the 1960s, but knew next to nothing about the treatment of Native Americans until, as a college student in Flagstaff in the early ’70s, I read “Bury my heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown. And the discovery of mass graves at boarding schools for Native American/Indigenous children across Canada and the United States in recent months brings home the fact that North American history since the arrival of Europeans is replete with a dark side that is too often left out of public school history textbooks.
So, should we give our children, as Paul Harvey often said, “the rest of the story”? Some argue that doing so makes children “hate themselves because of the color of their skin.” Again, this is simplistic and hyperbolic thinking.
As a Jungian-oriented psychologist, I am aware that the first step in analysis is what is called “confronting” or “befriending the shadow.” Put simply, it means coming to grips with those parts of ourselves about which we are most ashamed, unaware, or embarrassed — which are typically also those traits that we all too readily project onto others so as to avoid looking at ourselves. Most do this unconsciously until they get into therapy and begin that difficult but necessary journey of self-discovery.
However, this doesn’t lead to self-loathing, but rather to self-acceptance, and embracing our full humanity. We are both good and bad, beautiful and ugly, capable of great things as well as terrible things. The sooner we accept this, the better we can control our worst impulses and consciously choose to follow our better ones.
Some of my colleagues in analytical psychology have taken insights from what happens in the consulting room and applied them to larger social contexts (e.g., Andrew Samuels’ “The Political Psyche”). Applying these insights to the current furor, suggests that, far from “making kids hate America,” telling them the truth, the “rest of the story” of our nation’s past, acknowledging where we have failed to live up to our own ideals in addition to those moments when we did better at that effort, can help them resolve to continue the struggle to make America all that it truly can be.
When we see our common humanity — failures, warts and all — we can commit to build the better nation that those of us who lived through and remember the ’60s were striving for back then.
On the other hand, avoiding the hard discussions and learning a sanitized version of America’s past does not help us build a better future — it creates instead a fantasy world of half-truths and the “myth of American exceptionalism.” This builds complacency and acceptance of the status quo as “good enough for my mom and dad, and it’s good enough for me.” Hardly an attitude geared toward tackling the difficult challenge of building a country that is truly one of “liberty and justice for all.” We’re not there yet, but we’re closer than we were.
David Davidson-Methot lives in Grass Valley.
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