By Robert Katz
Was Thomas Jefferson a great man who wrote the Declaration
of Independence and co-founded the University of Virginia, or a slaveholder who
benefitted from the most degrading of human relationships? Was the Louisiana
Purchase a masterstroke that doubled American territory and gave opportunity to
countless Americans, or was it a great blow to the sovereignty and viability of
the Indian nations of the Midwest? Was America* the great country that
liberated Europe from fascism, or was it a nation that conspired to overthrow
democratically elected governments in Latin America and elsewhere?
If your answers to these questions were “All of the Above,”
give yourself an A.
What kind of country are we? There is a longing by many for
simple answers. America is a racist country or America is definitely not a
racist country. But America, like Walt Whitman’s description of his Self, is
large and contains multitudes. No one adjective or sentence can capture its
For millions, immigrants from countries in which despots and
feudal barons ruled, countries such as Russia and Romania where my Jewish grandparents
came from, America was a land of great possibilities, notwithstanding its
shortcomings. It was a place where there was some kind of rule of law,
democratic self-rule however imperfect, and an economic system that, while not
free of prejudice or exploitation, would allow them and their children to rise
in the world.
For millions of others, America was a land where their
forefathers were brought over in chains, or they were indigenous people
uprooted from their land and subject to actual and cultural genocide, or they were
Chinese or Japanese immigrants subject to all manner of exclusion and
These are some of the many American realities. They are all
true. They give rise to a confusion that has fueled the debate about how US
history should be taught. Slogans get thrown around, wokeness is exhibited and
condemned, phrases like “critical race theory” are bandied about uncritically.
The political right claims that the left is attempting to indoctrinate students
to socialistic multiculturalism. And it’s true that some antiracist teachings,
particularly in the realm of diversity training, can engage in fatuous generalizations.
In a recent article in the New York Times Sunday Review, “Can We Talk about
Critical Race Theory?” Jay Caspian Kang gives an example of teachers being trained
that white culture fosters “independence and individual achievement,” while
“color groups” rely more on “interdependence and group success.” Such racial
stereotyping deserves the condemnation it’s gotten.
But if some on the left are guilty of this foolishness,
partisans of the right have engaged in something yet more sinister: using the
teaching of race and racism as a cultural wedge to divide the electorate for
their own political advantage. Many in the Republican party, while accusing the
left of propagandizing the young, promote a view of America’s racial history
based on denial and deemphasis. They see teaching America’s historical crimes
and follies as an attack on America itself. To win white votes they assert that
teaching structural racism as an American reality is an attack on white people.
The strongest case for American greatness is that at times we
have faced our failure to live up to our ideals and have attempted to rectify
that failure. Think of the trade union movement that fought to give dignity and
prosperity to working people who previously were at the mercy of their
employers; the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s that, through civil
disobedience and political activism, made strides in raising Black people up
from third class citizenship; the progressive political movements that now see
Mexican Americans represented at all levels of government and the appointment
of the first American Indian Secretary of the Interior. None of these advances
could have been possible without facing the grave injustices of the past. The
last thing we need is right-wing indoctrination that tells us teaching
uncomfortable truths about American history is un-American
How about if we suspend the propaganda of both the right and
the left in teaching American history? How about if we agree to teach the unvarnished
facts, the good, the bad, and the ambiguous? Then let’s encourage students to
embrace methods of reasoning, of sifting through evidence, of distinguishing
the reliable from the dubious and deceptive so that they can come to their own
conclusions about what kind of country America is. Raising a generation of
independent-minded citizens in the art of critical thinking might just move America
in the direction of becoming the great nation it always has aspired to be.
*I mainly use the less geographically and politically
correct but more colloquial term “America” for the USA. As songwriters from
Irving Berlin to Neil Diamond know, it scans better.
Robert Katz served as a staff attorney and supervising
attorney at the California Supreme Court from 1993-2018. Before that he was in
private practice representing public agencies, and worked as a newspaper
reporter covering local government in Santa Cruz County.
Subscribe to this blog by email: click here.