- - Monday, November 15, 2021

Before 2020 did you ever hear of critical race theory?

Seemingly out of nowhere, this academic theory about structural racism, developed by scholars 40 years ago, became the focus of a bitter, volatile culture war pitting conservative activists against school boards. The controversy spurred legislation banning its teaching in dozens of states and even influenced the outcome of Virginia’s gubernatorial election.

Although there is little evidence the theory itself is being taught in K-12 classes, elements of it have surfaced in school systems across the country, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Often lost in this imbroglio, however, is the actual definition of critical race theory and the reasons behind its development, which primarily focused on analyzing the consequences of structural racism in American institutions, and not — as it often alleged — on the attitudes of individual citizens.

Of concern to professional historians is a potential chilling effect on educators, who may fear raising certain subjects in social studies and history classes because they might contravene the wave of anti-CRT legislation or provoke a parental outcry. That is because CRT has become a catch-all term wielded by opponents of cultural liberalism, real or perceived.

In this episode of History As It Happens, Eric Foner, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars of the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, discussed the importance of teaching students about the role structural racism (such as Jim Crow) plays in U.S. history.

“On one level it is gratifying that people are taking the teaching of history seriously, or at least that it is important enough to make it into a major political question,” said Mr. Foner, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University.

“The problem is the discussion is filled with so much demagoguery and complete misinformation that you have to [ask], is this doing something good, or is it further obfuscating what the teaching of history ought to be?” said the scholar, whose 1988 study “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution” is widely considered the best one-volume treatment of the period.

Mr. Foner acknowledged that the way U.S. history is taught has changed dramatically in recent decades.

“Issues like race and African-American history were never taught when I was younger. Now they are taught. … If you look at American history textbooks or statewide standards, there is certainly a lot more emphasis on African-American history than in the past, and this makes some people uncomfortable,” Mr. Foner contended.

Given the nation’s ongoing reckoning with racial issues, whether it’s street demonstrations against police brutality or disputes over schools’ lesson plans, Mr. Foner does not expect the CRT controversy to abate soon.

To listen to the entire interview with Mr. Foner, download this episode of History As It Happens

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