Opinions

We can’t make America better if we pretend it’s already perfect

John Lewis Remembered

More than 50 years ago, my graduate school mentor, professor Thomas P. Govan, a sage, somewhat earthy but grand and generous Southern gentleman from Atlanta, explained to me an epiphany he had as a young man about race in America. He had attended the opening reception of a new bank branch in his neighborhood; it was a neo-Gothic building of some pretention. Among the other well-dressed attendees was an African American man who began carefully to examine a number of features of the building.

After a few minutes, the African American man was approached by one of the organizers of the event who asked him what he was doing there. The guest said that he had worked on various parts of the structure as it was being built, and he wanted to see what the finished product looked like. The organizer responded that was fine, but it was time for the African American man to leave. Why, Govan wondered, should that man have been ejected from the building, denying him his appreciation of the work and his sense of achievement, simply because of the color of his skin? What possible harm could he bring to anyone there? The incident marked the professor for life.

After his graduate studies in history, Govan took a job at University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, a small liberal arts college that was also the seminary for the southeast region of the Episcopal Church. But he quit that post in 1953, the year before Brown v. Board of Education, the decision prohibiting racial segregation in schools, because the school in Sewanee refused to integrate. He went seven years without a permanent posting before moving to NYU.

In addition to his other work, Govan co-authored a history of the U.S. with two other American cultural historians. In it he articulated an insight he had gained, a fundamental fact of American history that he taught me: There has been no time in the evolution of American culture when race consciousness has not informed the way our people have thought about themselves and their values. We have always been a race-conscious society, and that preoccupation has worked persistently to the detriment of African Americans and other non-white minorities. This was a rare insight then, but one that has recently become increasingly appreciated.

In his history, Govan wrote that from the earliest colonial beginnings through the national founding, the Civil War, the Progressive Era and after, up to the present, perceptions of race — especially the assumption of white superiority — have always been there, always affecting cultural development and the formation of national policy. A corollary has been that African Americans and other minorities do not have the capacity to become equal to whites, no matter how much education they might obtain or how well they might become assimilated; they simply can never be equal. And the notion that they might be equal albeit different in their cultural mores and activities was, until very recently, not considered seriously.

Today, critical race theory, a catchphrase based on professional academic study of race in America, posits that systemic, institutionalized racism has disadvantaged, and continues to disadvantage, African Americans and other minorities, much more than individual racist ideas and behaviors.

The fact of America’s growing diversity alarms many legislators and voters on the political right, and fear of it often motivates their actions. This fear is now being linked to critical race theory, and has lately translated into legislation enacted in several states, proposed in many others, which bans teaching that suggests that whites in America are more privileged than minorities, that American culture is racist, and in some cases that minority anger at enduring inequality is justified.

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This amounts to a denial that there is any race problem in America, despite such statistically demonstrable phenomena as disparities in judicial sentencing and police brutality, for example. But, as scholars, analysts and pundits have noted continually, it’s not possible to solve a problem until recognizing there is a problem.

Govan would have said that it is both possible and necessary to teach both the historically liberating and uplifting ideals of American culture while at the same time addressing forthrightly the fact that in many cases we have fallen short of achieving their promise. It’s not really possible to hide this reality from America’s school children; they are better informed and more aware than reactionary state legislators credit them. To pretend there is no race problem in America simply leads them to incredulity and distrust of their leaders.

Steve Haycox is a professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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Steve Haycox

Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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