Of all the memorable ways to let a genie out of a bottle, it’s hard to beat the maneuver of making up a phrase and then watching that phrase run around the world, refusing any call to return to the store for a tune-up. . . While the phrase elicits fierce opposition and equally fierce defense, its creator can only repeat a remark that no one hears: “That’s not quite what I meant.
Having been there and done this, I feel some sympathy for the people who have brought up the term Critical Race Theory.
I had my first experience with a rogue phrase thirty-five years ago. After a Washington Post reporter wrote an article on “Trails: Toward a New Western History,” a conference I hosted in 1987, the phrase, New Western History, became visible.
The objections – usually presented as if they carried astonishing insight – mounted the same rocket. New Western History paid too much attention to minorities. It wasn’t really new. New or not, his portrayal of the nation’s westward expansion was far too disillusioning and negative.
A comment I heard from a reviewer won the award: “I said everything you said before I did! And everything you say is wrong!
Compared to critical race theory, New Western History was a poor failure when it came to generating an uproar. No President of the United States has ever placed me or my phrase in the crosshairs of his rhetorical rage. Not a single state lawmaker has even started drafting a bill to punish K-12 teachers for finding a place for new Western history in their classrooms.
This distant story leads us to recognize a deeply ironic fact.
If it had not been excoriated by former President Donald Trump, and if lawmakers in various states had not drafted and passed laws prohibiting teachers from including it in their lesson plans, the theory of the critical race would still be sequestered in universities, traveling in the closed circuit of professors speaking to professors.
Escorted to visibility by its opponents, Critical Race Theory has never addressed its big identity problem: hardly anyone knows what that means.
Why, for example, is it called a theory, when the statements of its supporters are usually recorded – not as theories put forward to be tested – but as critical conclusions of early race?
And why have his opponents never asked, “Could someone provide an accessible, jargon-free definition of this theory that rocks us all?” “
If I had been asked this question, I would have offered my best chance at decoding the term: “Critical Race Theory asserts that the injustices inherent in the origins of this nation await full reckoning in all areas of American life.” .
In the race to ban an idea that no one can accurately define or identify, restless lawmakers have hit a slippery slope. If they don’t stop this slippage, they could soon write laws to exclude mermaids, dragons, unicorns and other figures with questionable existence from classrooms across the country.
But why not try a law to put geniuses back in their bottles? Restored to familiar surroundings, the geniuses would feel more at ease and less inclined – indeed, incapable – of causing trouble.
Better yet, we humans may be able to understand what we are really discussing.
Patty Limerick can be reached at [email protected], and you can find her blog, “Not My First Rodeo, on the Center of the American West website.
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