Just now, conservative and mostly Republican legislators are advancing bills into law that will prohibit the teaching of “critical race theory” (CRT) in our public schools. Basically the theory says that racism – the prejudices, antagonism, inequality, and violence between white and black races in America – is not merely an “episode” of our history, but embedded in the political ideology, cultural institutions, economic structures, and legal system of America today.
Those seeking to block critical race theory from the public school curriculum accuse it of throwing America as a nation under the gloss of racism, of making all white people into white supremacists.
Surely there are many white folks who value diversity and want to include black people in American life – but that’s really the point.
White people are in this position of deciding whether or not to include black people precisely because they are the privileged majority, the ones by whom and for whom the grand system of American society was built. The fact that they built it upon the backs of African slaves is therefore, according to critical race theory, not a merely historical note. Those assumptions and biases were baked right into the white American way of life.
Anti-CRT legislators are only the political face of a much deeper and broader mindset in America today, one that has become entranced by superficial images and brand marketing, steadily losing its ability to think critically and reflectively about reality. As a consequence of our intellectual seduction and down-dumbing, we no longer have the vocabulary and conceptual categories for picking through the misrepresentations and “fake news” of the day in order to apprehend the complex reality beyond our veils.
Reality is, in fact, not “black and white” but ambiguous, and without the critical-reflective tools to help us grasp the paradoxes of our American experience and the human condition, we inevitably fall into (and fall for) a conflict-oriented binary logic of either-or.
According to this mindset, the grayscale reality of American society cannot be transcended as “black with white,” but must be resolved into “black against white” – preferably “white without black.” Importantly, that it cannot be transcended does not speak to a limitation of reality itself, but exposes a dangerously diminished capacity of our minds.
Another place I see this downward resolution of ambiguity (or complexity) into the dualism of either-or is in religion. As the belief system oriented on the objective existence of god, theism is trying to restrain our spiritual progress into a new system where god is assimilated and freshly incarnated in lives of generosity, compassion, and goodwill. Religious conservatives are misrepresenting this emerging spirituality of post-theism as simple atheism: godless, selfish, heretical, and immoral.
If they are forced to put post-theism either on the side of traditional theism or that of secular atheism, average believers from whom the conceptual tools of critical theology have been intentionally withheld will have no choice but to reject it out of hand. With well-developed tools, on the other hand, they might appreciate how post-theism includes and transcends important elements of both traditional theism and secular atheism, without being reducible to either.
I brought this brief account of post-theism into the discussion of critical race theory and American education for two reasons. First, race and religion are two of the dominant threads or themes that have shaped American history and character, and we shouldn’t be surprised to encounter a conservative resistance on both fronts as our inherited assumptions start breaking against a complex reality.
American race relations and religious identities are presently in the throes of deep (radical: at the roots) transformation, and those of us who hold a vision for a New Reality of spiritual awakening and genuine community need to keep its focus on this higher aim.
As we recover and sharpen our critical tools, it will be important for us to expose the systemic, institutional, and ideological prejudices that currently have us locked into an either-or debate, in both American courts and American churches.
The second reason I wanted to briefly include some remarks on religion along with these thoughts on the legislative efforts underway to “whitewash” American public education, is based in how both of these thresholds of creative change provide an opportunity for us to better understand – and more responsibly manage – what only recently has come to be acknowledged as the “construction of meaning.”
Constructivism regards meaning as something our minds assign to reality, as they construct the perspectives, philosophies, and worldviews that orient and guide us through life.
Although it sounds as if we about to slide into a hopeless nihilism, the idea that reality (the really real, being-itself) is a mystery outside our minds and beyond words – essentially ineffable, indescribably perfect, and perfectly meaningless – can be powerfully liberating. The spiritual wisdom teachings have insisted on the illusory nature of meaning for many centuries, but it’s only been in the last hundred years or so that more of us have come to appreciate the creative role our mind plays in making meaning and constructing our world.
Meaning isn’t “out there” as people once believed, but originates “in here” and is projected onto and out into reality.
For reality – any reality – to mean something, our mind must first get it in focus and place a frame around it. This frame determines what will be included (i.e., everything inside the frame) and what will be excluded, or more accurately ignored. Once the frame is set, a filter is imposed that will screen out all irrelevant data and allow through only what matters. With these “construction materials” now in hand, the mind proceeds to fit it all together, fixing the joints and finishing the edges into something meaningful – a product and reflection of the mind itself.
Now, of course, this project of making meaning isn’t all that innocent. Merely selecting the portion of reality to enframe amounts to a tacit invalidation of what we choose not to include. The filter we use is itself comprised of predilections, preferences, and prejudgments, for the most part energized by largely preconscious drives of self-interest and tribal identity. Put simply, the meaning we make and the worlds we create carry our natural and cultural biases.
This is what is meant by “systemic racism”: in the case of American society, a world-construct and way of life that reflect the values and favor the interests of white people, who first conspired together in its creation and have since accepted its definition as the way things are and should continue to be.
We need critical race theory, as well as what might be called critical religion theory, to equip us with the critical tools for deconstructing any part of our “American world” that excludes, exploits, oppresses, or debases other human beings – of whatever color, class, character, or creed. We can no longer be excused for our inability to dig into those embedded and baked-in forms of racism which continue to shape our consciousness and compel our behavior.
Critical race theory is giving us the tools and vocabulary we need for constructing a better and bigger world, for everyone. What we need now is the courage to change the things we can.