Deep Dive Episode 186 – Teaching About Race in the Curriculum
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This episode features a panel discussion on Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project and the current debates over how best to teach American history. Linda Chavez, Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity moderates the program and is joined by Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars and author of 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, and John Agresto, former President of St. John’s College in Santa Fe.
- John Agresto, Former President, St. John’s College
- Peter Wood, President, National Association of Scholars
- [Moderator] Linda Chavez, Chairman, Center for Equal Opportunity
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[Music and Narration]
Introduction: Welcome to the Regulatory Transparency Project’s Fourth Branch podcast series. All expressions of opinion are those of the speaker.
Alida Kass: Welcome to today’s Regulatory Transparency Project Teleforum Call. I’m Alida Kass, Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at The Federalist Society, and the Director of the Freedom of Thought Project. This project is a new initiative to consider emerging challenges to freedoms of expression, conscience, and thought, in a variety of key sectors within corporate America: the tech sector, our law firms, and our law schools and other educational institutions. We invite you to follow other freedom-of-thought-related programming available at The Federalist Society website.
We are midway through a showcase discussion series moderated by Judge Katsas that is considering many of the legal questions emerging out of the ongoing debate over tech, social media, and competing expressive interests. Our prior panels have covered First Amendment questions, statutory interpretation questions of Section 230, and questions of common carrier regulation. These are all recorded and available for viewing on our website. Tomorrow, Thursday, July 1, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern, we will consider questions of antitrust, market power, and the digital platforms. I hope you’ll join us for that.
But today, we are focusing on our educational institutions. So, for today’s live podcast, we will discuss critical race theory, The 1619 Project, and the current debate over how best to teach American history. Linda Chavez, Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, will moderate this program with Peter Wood, President of the National Association of Scholars, and John Agresto, former President of St. John’s College in Santa Fe.
If you’d like to learn more about our speakers and their work, you can visit regproject.org, where we have their full bios. And I’ll note that after remarks and discussion between our panelists, we will go to audience Q&A, so please be thinking about questions you’d like to ask our speakers.
I’m now very pleased to introduce our moderator, Linda Chavez. Linda is the Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity, and a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center in Washington DC. In 2000, Linda was honored by the Library of Congress as a living legend for her contributions to America’s cultural and historical legacy. In January of 2001, she was President George W. Bush’s nominee for Secretary of Labor until she withdrew her name from consideration. She has held a number of appointed positions — among them, Chairman of the National Commission on Migrant Education, the White House Director of Public Liaison, Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and she was a member of the Administrative Conference of the United States.
She was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senator from Maryland in 1986. In 1992, she was elected by the United Nations Human Rights Commission to serve a four-year term as U.S. Expert to the U.N. Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities. Linda, the floor is yours.
Linda Chavez: Thank you very much, Alida. It’s a pleasure to be here with The Federalist Society, and also to be with two friends—one of my oldest friends, John Agresto; and Peter Wood, also a friend and colleague. And I’ll be introducing them in a little bit greater length in a moment.
But, first of all, let me introduce the topic. Critical race theory is very much in the news these days. Articles and opinion pieces about it have been peppered throughout all major publications in the U.S., and there has been a flurry of legislative activity. According to Education Week, the most recent stats on states that, in some way or another, tried to restrict critical race theory in public schools include 26 that are considering it and nine that have already banned it in one form or another. Most recently, Florida — the Department of Education — banned critical race theory.
So, given that it is such an incredibly controversial topic, I thought it might be best to begin by giving a short definition of critical race theory. And, instead of giving a definition that I wrote, or that one of our panelists might have written, I decided to go to the American Bar Association, which has, up on its website, a lesson on critical race theory, and hear it from the point of view of those who support critical race theory. So, I’m going to read you a short paragraph before opening discussion.
“Critical race theory is not a diversity and inclusion training, but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship. Kimberlé Crenshaw—who coined the term “CRT”—notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition, but is considered to be evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.”
Well, I have an idea that our two guests are going to take issue with that introduction and give their own definitions of critical race theory. So, without further ado, let me just say a word or two more about our two guests. First, Peter Wood is President of the National Association of Scholars. He’s also a former professor of anthropology, and college provost. He’s the author, most recently, of 1620: A Critical Response to the 1619 Project, and the author of several other books, including Diversity: The Invention of a Concept, which he wrote in 2003, and a book called A Bee in the Mouth: Anger in America Now, 2007, and Diversity Rules, 2020.
John Agresto is a longtime professor of American history, politics, and political thought, and he’s also the retired president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was the senior advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education in Iraq, and subsequently, chancellor and academic dean at the American University of Iraq, which he helped found just over 10 years ago. He’s presently finishing a book on liberal education and American democracy.
So, Peter, one of the most well-known expositions of critical race theory was The New York Times Project 1619, which was edited by Nikole Hannah-Jones. Can you give us a brief description of The 1619 Project, and how it has come to be so influential in so many curricula in various states?
Peter Wood: Thank you. The 1619 Project was a 100-page collection of articles—ten major articles and about 20 briefer ones. The lead article was by Nikole Hannah-Jones herself. The premise of The 1619 Project was that the real founding of America occurred in August of 1619 when a ship brought twenty-some African slaves to near Jamestown, Virginia and that these poor, unfortunate individuals became the basis of the American establishment of slavery as an institution, that everything that has happened in American history since economically, socially, politically, legally, even in religion and other areas of culture, stems from that pivotal moment when slavery began in the English colonies in August of 1619.
This thread is traced through the ten ensuing essays in the original project, where we learn such things as the American Revolution was fought by the colonists in order to stymie the threat of the British to abolish the institution of slavery. Of course, there was no such threat. That never happened. That’s a pure historical fantasy. But much of the rest project follows in that vein. There’s the claim that America’s material prosperity was the result of low-road capitalism — that’s the term — which was the approach taken by the plantation slaveholders in the antebellum south to derive the maximum amount of labor from their slaves at the minimum degree of material cost in supporting their lives and livelihood.
The idea is that American capitalism itself was a convention of the plantation slavery system. We learned later that Abraham Lincoln had no particular desire to free the slaves. His approach was to seek an arrangement whereby African-Americans would be exiled to a colony abroad, perhaps in Haiti or Panama. So, we get this breathtaking revisioning of American history through the lens of a set of premises that are, in some cases, entirely false, in other cases are rather dramatic distortions in which there’s a seed of historical accuracy that has been blown up into another fantasy of racial paranoia.
That’s what The 1619 Project is. On the last page of the 100-page exegesis of it, the idea is an announcement from the Pulitzer Center that they have partnered with The New York Times to turn this document into a curriculum suitable for K-12 education. And, very quickly, the Pulitzer Center established that they had signed up tens of thousands of American teachers and major school districts like Buffalo and Chicago that had agreed to integrate The 1619 Project with their teaching of American history.
Linda Chavez: And you, of course, wrote, as I suggested, the book, 1620, which was a critical response to The 1619 Project. Can you just very briefly tell us why you wrote the book and why you think that it is so important that The 1619 Project itself be countered?
Peter Wood: Well, I suppose it begins with a personal moment. I woke up on the morning of August 18, 2019 and picked up my copy of The New York Times. I read this special magazine supplement cover to cover that morning and thought, “This cannot stand.” But also, recognizing the powerful influence of The New York Times, realized that this would soon become a version of history known to millions of Americans who might not know another history.
The next day, I called my staff together at the National Association of Scholars and said, “We’ve got to make a priority project out of responding to this.” My first thought was not to write a book, but to begin to contact professional historians who had something to say about that, and among them was Phil Magness, who’s gone on to write his own book on the subject. But, after several months of gathering these together and seeing that some others were doing similar things, the American socialists had gotten together and brought together a whole lot of left-of-center historians to refute The 1619 Project.
By the end of the year, historians were pleading with The New York Times to make some basic corrections, and The Times was declining to do that. And it was at that point where I saw that even the most well-known and well-regarded American historians could not budge Nikole Hannah-Jones or the New York Times to correct these egregious mistakes, that I decided that the time had come to write a book. I still wasn’t sure, at that point, whether, by the book could get in print and be distributed, anybody would be paying attention to this folly. But I took the chance on it anyway.
I guess I owe a debt of gratitude to The Times and Nikole Hannah-Jones, that not only did The 1619 Project remain alive, it became bigger and bigger and bigger. After the George Floyd riots broke out, Nikole Hannah-Jones rather famously and proudly said that she would call them the 1619 Riots, and, indeed, we saw spray-painted on many public statues “1619.” So, this project became a rationale for civil unrest and lawlessness, proudly owned by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She received a Pulitzer Prize for it. And, as probably most listeners know, she’s been the center of a controversy at the University of North Carolina over whether she should have a chair in the Hussman School of Journalism there — breaking news on that today.
–So, I wrote the book thinking that this was a matter of urgency for the American public. We are not a nation that pays sufficient attention to our history in the first place, but when a false version of it is launched and backed by the power and finance of The New York Times, it seemed to me that we all have some responsibility, collectively, as scholars and as citizens, to respond to this.
Linda Chavez: Well, I think you’re absolutely right about that. And by the way, this isn’t the first controversy about the kinds of topics that are included in The 1619 Project. You, I, and John are all old enough to remember the battles in the 1990s over multicultural education, the rewriting of textbooks, particularly in California, that attempted to incorporate more black and brown voices, more women in the textbooks. There was a whole flurry during the 1990s and the mid-1990s about Afrocentric education. Their Afrocentric education attempted to rewrite history to basically promote the idea that Africa was not only the cradle of civilization, but that African Americans and the African diaspora were responsible for many of the most notable accomplishments in history.
These materials were not always correct, but as you noted, Peter, the civil unrest that began in the wake of the death of Mr. Floyd in Minnesota has sparked a whole social movement. And one of the things that cities and schools are trying to grapple with, is how to teach about race. And there has been a lot of state funding now that is going towards anti-racism programs in various schools. And John, I want to turn to you and ask you to think for a moment about why it is some of the concept of critical race theory, which views everything through a racial prism and makes people think as members of group as opposed to individuals — why that is not necessarily the best way to get at ridding society of racism.
John Agresto: Well, I’m almost tempted to quote Chief Justice Roberts. If you want to get rid of racism, don’t be racist. If you want to get rid of racial preferencing, don’t prefer by race. But that leads me into the more important question. You and Peter have been talking about The 1619 Project and critical race theory. And they’re actually a little bit different, but let’s lump them together for now as bad history—an attack on our history — and it surely is that. It’s false history in many, many ways. But it’s deeper than that. It’s an attack on the principles of American society. It’s an attack on the principles of the founding. And to be honest, it’s an attack on what I think most Americans really believe is the best part of the country.
Now, to be honest — you mentioned Afrocentric education. Go back — I mean before that, we — other attacks on the principles of America come up with – well, we’ll take Howard Zinn’s book on American history. That probably was in more schools than we can even begin to name. Before that, I mean, the attack on the principles of this country go all the way back to the pre-confederate southern slaveholders who launched vicious attacks on Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence — that the idea that all men are created equal is a lie—a self-evident lie—as one senator from Indiana once said.
The principles that we have are always under attack by people who have reason to want to attack them because of their own interests. And so, I think what we want to do is not talk about 1619 as bad history. It is. We want to talk about it as bad philosophy—bad understanding of what America is. And, to be honest, it is The 1619 Project that says — I guess quoting — or following Peter — that the true founding is 1619, and that slavery lies at — how do they put it — the very heart of the country’s past and future, that everything— our legal, our economic, our social systems—were — and here’s where they connect to the critical race theory — purposely constructed to oppress minorities.
That the American Revolution was launched to protect slavery is not only just balderdash, it’s getting at a position where the attempt is to demean, degrade and destroy the principles the country was founded on. And so, it’s not exactly an attack on American history, it’s more of an attack on our principles, on the Declaration of Independence, on the Constitution, on the founders, on Jefferson. It even brings itself down to Abraham Lincoln. It brings itself down to attacks on FDR. And to be honest, although they don’t speak about this, it’s a serious, serious attack on Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King had an understanding of those principles and of America as — not as a racist nation, but as an aspirational nation. And what they want to say is, “No, it is fundamentally racist, systematically racist.” And I think we should talk about that more as we go along, but I just want to get us, in a sense, moved from history — or build up upon history — to talk about philosophy.
Linda Chavez: I think you’re absolutely right, John. And one of the things I’ve tried to make clear when I write and talk about critical race theory is it is an attack on the very definition of justice in the American system. I mean, ours is a nation that is founded not on men, but on laws, and the principle of equality has been always — not always fulfilled, but at least aspirationally, that all persons are equal before the law and that the guarantees of the Constitution are to guarantee that equality before the law.
And it seems to me that critical race theory and the proponents — and, by the way, this comes out of critical legal studies, too, which was part and parcel of the same kind of thinking — is that we don’t judge whether or not a society is just based on whether or not there is equal opportunity and equality before the law. We can only determine that a nation is just when we have absolute equal outcomes for, not individuals, but for groups, and groups defined by some criteria. If you were a Marxist, I guess we would define it by class. If you’re a critical race theorist, then you would define it by race. And let me ask you about that, John, because this is something that you’ve thought about, why is that so pernicious? Why is moving from equal opportunity to equal outcomes so divisive?
John Agresto: Look at what we’ve accomplished by being an aspirational nation, as I put it, under the terms of the Declaration of Independence. Did this mean that from the very beginning we lived up to those principles? No. And if you teach American history plainly, simply, and openly, I think students will come to the conclusion that Thomas Jefferson had slaves, and therefore he’s a hypocrite of some sort. Interestingly enough, Jefferson probably would agree with that. And then you have to ask why. What was is that he — what is it about these principles that make them so hard to live up to and so revolutionary in themselves? No other nation, as far as I know, ever launched a kind of war to get rid of slavery because of an idea of human equality.
We have to ask what is it about these principles that makes them so powerful and so controversial. As I said before, slave owners would say they were lies. Charles Beard and the early progressives would say a lie because the country’s founded on capitalist oppression. Zinn takes that up — and now we have it — that it’s founded on racial oppression. And the truth is that those principles have made it so that the things you mentioned before—equality before the law, equal opportunity—while still evolving, and still getting better and better and better, don’t seem to satisfy certain groups, because certain groups can say, “I’m not up there in the top, so this equality of opportunity and the principles that lie behind it must be wrong.”
You talk about meritocracy. You talk about promoting people on the basis of merit. Well, some of us get there, but not all of us. And so, the hard part is — the principles lay out the best that America can be. We try to achieve them, but over and over again, people fall short. And you can only ask, “What would we replace them with?” I mean, where does the principle that these principles are defective end? Do we get rid of the idea of equal opportunity because we can’t make everyone equal always? Do we get rid of the idea of judging on the basis of merit? Do we get rid of the idea of judging on the basis of personal responsibility? Do we get rid of judging, as Martin Luther King might say, on the basis of people’s character, rather than on accidental qualities, such as race or sex or ethnicity?
After you expose the lie, as they would say, that America is the land of opportunity, then what? What takes its place? I mean, this is really serious because I don’t know what would take its place. If discrimination is systemic, what do we do to change the structure of other things that seem to be discriminatory, like the family, like love of one’s own? Does it affect religion? What do we do then? What do we do about the rights of free speech or of association? I don’t know where this theory ends and neither do they.
Linda Chavez: Very good point. And picking up on the free speech issue, one of the reasons that some people who are center-left, and even very progressive, have been critical of critical race theory is that in order to promote the ideas that are encapsulated in critical race theory, you have to control speech. And I’m just wondering, Peter, if you might talk about that a moment and what — how is it that critical race theory impinges on the rights of free expression and thought.
Peter Wood: Well, the general view of the critical race theorists and their allies is that the First Amendment is a charter for privileged people to engage in speech at the expense of those who are disprivileged. So, free speech itself is an illusion. It is a concept that serves the dominant factions in society that ill-serves everybody else. And in light of that, the proper answer is to try to silence those who have made use of the advantages of free speech and to provide a protected space for others.
What does that silencing entail? Well, sometimes it’s speech codes on college campuses, sometimes it’s the stigmatizing of words in everyday language so that people have to think their thoughts via some consideration for what would critical race theory, BLM, or something else want me to say. And sometimes it takes the form of shutting people down and preventing them from speaking at all, as in the forms of Charles Murray or Heather Mac Donald being silenced when they try to speak up.
So, we have built into this new racial animus a sense that language is fair game, that there is no principled reason why we should hear speech that we don’t like. Speech that we don’t like is pretty quickly labeled “hate speech.” And an alternative version of the First Amendment that doesn’t exist anywhere in law has it that free speech does not include hate speech, and hate speech is any speech I don’t like. So, that’s the train of connections that pulls all these pieces together.
Linda Chavez: Well, I think that’s certainly right. And, interestingly, we’ve had some reaction, even on the left, from people that you might not expect, and we’ve talked about some of the historians. There is a — the Germans have a word for everything, and they have a word that I’ve always been fond of that means, basically, that you make things worse by trying to make them better. The word is verschlimmbesserung. And I’m sure I have butchered that for the German speakers on the line.
But one of the people who decided to take to Twitter, that sort of exemplified this, was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s son, Sean. And he wrote on Twitter, “I’m very sad that I feel like I have to say the following, but here goes. Asians are not the problem. Blacks are not the problem. Jews are not the problem. And yes, whites are not the problem either. No race or culture is the problem.”
Well, you can imagine that those who followed him on Twitter were not all enthusiastic about that because, of course, it let whites off the hook. But isn’t that part of the problem, John, that when you start making people identify, first and foremost, in terms of their race, and in terms of how they identify by some characteristics, which, at least for the time being, we don’t consider immutable — we used to consider sex one of those immutable characteristics, but that’s probably fodder for another forum. But race we still define — you were born into a particular racial or ethnic group. What happens when you start making people identify, first and foremost? You were in Iraq. Tell us just briefly, where does that lead us?
John Agresto: One thing that the founders tried to do was to — now, they understood that everyone loves his own. And what they tried to do was, I think, to — let me be blunt about it — weaken that attachment to your own. We all, by nature, prefer our kids, ourselves, our tribe, our families, our religion. Democratic societies can’t exist if that’s the end of the story. In fact, while no one’s saying you shouldn’t be attached to things that you love, sometimes that love can be exclusionary. Sometimes that love can be difficult to form a polity from.
And so, we have to be careful about group rights, or even just group privileges and group entitlement. That’s the way to dissolve the democracy itself. I understand all the problems. We all understand the problems with individual rights. But somehow we’ve managed to find a way, through our economic system, and our political system, and our social constructs, to take individualism and make it work more or less beautifully for the common good — defects here and there, but it works.
But once you say that the foundation of society is what is particularly your own, and those people over there in the society are “other,” I’m afraid we’re not going to get very far down the road to justice that way.
Linda Chavez: And I think we’ve seen many examples in many places in the world. The term Balkanization exists for a reason because, in fact, the Balkans were very ethnically and religiously divided and that led to conflict and war and death. So, let me ask you this, though, Peter. Obviously, we have not always done a perfect job of teaching the full story of America. We’re old enough to have grown up at a time when we would not necessarily have spent very much time in our schoolbooks learning about Jim Crow laws. We might have learned about slavery. We certainly would have learned about the Civil War.
But we might not have learned much about, for example, the massacre that took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma 100 years ago, or a lot of time spent talking about the Chinese Exclusion Acts of the 19th century, or the Trail of Tears or some of the other stories of various groups that have, in fact, encountered discrimination, prejudice, and a really not-full fulfilment of the promises of the Declaration of Independence.
How can we better incorporate those kinds of stories in a way that doesn’t negate our aspirations, or doesn’t incite a kind of resentment and a tit-for-tat of, “My people were oppressed, and so now I want a chance to be the oppressor.” How do we best do that?
Peter Wood: Well, the first and simplest thing to say is that we need to put a very high value on truth-telling. That is, the entire history of the country, including episodes for which we now feel shame, should be told. But it should be told with scrupulous accuracy, and that’s, I’m afraid, not always the case.
It is true that when I was growing up in the late 1950s and ’60s, schoolbooks did very little coverage of the oppression of minorities — blacks in particular, but Native Americans too. While I was writing the 1620 book, I went through a whole lot of textbooks covering the American history as it was taught from the late 19th century to the present and there is a dividing line that occurs in the early 1960s. Before that, the coverage is very spotty at best. After that, it becomes progressively richer and richer and richer. It’d be very difficult these days to find a history textbook in mainstream use in American schools that does not give rich and ample coverage to minorities.
So, I think in some ways, the problem was already solved well before Nikole Hannah-Jones decided to pick it up with the false claim that this story had never been told. It has been told. There is probably no subject that has more American historians specializing in it than slavery and its aftermath. It is the most popular specialization within the history of — in American historiography, I should put that. So, we’re not lacking in knowledge of what happened. We have a pretty good handle on how to tell these stories faithfully. But we have to watch out for the demagogues who want to take this over and turn it into a false history.
Now, there is another layer to this. I’ll be referring back to John on this. I’m an anthropologist and I see human beings as a pretty aggressive species. We’d like to divide ourselves into hostile competing groups. We don’t need a lot of incentive to do that. We can form alliances across those competing lines, but generally speaking, our default is tribalism. And what we have to deal with in telling our history is the realization that if you tell it wrong, you are inviting people to divide against each other.
So, what you have to do is make clear that this is a nation that really is founded on ideals, and seeking unity, rather than celebrating diversity is the task at hand. It’s very easy to celebrate diversity. Every group wants to magnify its own importance. But it’s relatively difficult to find the bands that tie us together as one nation, and that really becomes the burden that these history textbooks and civics textbooks need to embrace.
Linda Chavez: Let me also throw now to John the point that Peter made, but also reminding everyone that our national motto was established as “Out of many, one.” How do you go about creating that, John? What does that even mean, “Out of many, one?”
John Agresto: Okay. Good question. I never really look at that motto, but the Preamble to the Constitution — think of all they wanted to accomplish. They didn’t want to accomplish just one thing. The first thing they say, however, is “To form a more perfect union.” Okay. Establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.
Boy, you try getting all of those things together. And especially try getting all of those things together if we’re a nation of tribes or warring religious factions and sects or warring economic groupings and occupations — very, very difficult. But talking about teaching—what is being taught in the schools. And I’m not sure the extent to which critical race theory—or more importantly, The 1619 Project—is being taught in the schools. But, being the eternal optimist that I am, I think there’s an opportunity here, and an opportunity to see what both you and Peter are talking about.
Yes, you’re both right. There have been times when we had sort of a namby-pamby, whitewash kind of view of American history. We didn’t learn — we may have learned that slavery caused the Civil War, but we didn’t learn much about lynchings. We never learned about Tulsa. We very rarely talked about the Trail of Tears.
I just found out recently that the largest single lynching in American history happened in New Orleans. And the recipients, so to speak, of the lynching, were Italians. Who knew? I’m Italian. Who knew that Italians were the people involved—lynched in the largest lynching ever? In fact, it was so much so, that it led the president, Harrison, to establish Columbus Day in order to say, “Look, these are American citizens. Have some respect, will you.”
But here’s the way I look at it. Yes, history—our history—includes slavery and we should examine — and many other injustices — and we should examine and learn from that history. This is simply, we all know, undeniable. But it’s also true that we should introduce students to ideas of equality under law, equality of rights, the idea of colorblindness and not rewarding or punishing on the basis of color. Talk about how, as I mentioned before — about how our — how we — yes, we all love our own, we are all, in a sense, tribal, but how our principles sometimes ask us to rise above it.
Talk about that in class. Talk about how equality sometimes leads to inequality. And talk about what kind — ask them, have them think about what kind of society they’d want to be in. We talk a lot about “teachable moments” in today’s academic and public speech. I’d like to see, instead of just fulminating against critical race theory or fulminating against 1619 — of which I accuse no one on this panel — that we take it as a way to say, “Okay. Here’s the alternative, and if you are telling us we must talk about The 1619 Project, we’re also going to talk about the 1776 and the 1787-’89 Project.” Try to give your students the same kind of clear-sightedness that, I mentioned before, Martin Luther King had, that racism can’t be overcome by more racism, that there may be good reasons to treat people differently, and race is not one of them.
Ask what Martin Luther King meant when he said that all people should be judged on the basis of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skins. In other words, fight this critical race theory and 1619 Project on its own terms. They want to overturn the principles. Let’s try to understand them first and let’s hope we can teach our kids how to understand them. I know there’s going to be problems given the history of teacher education in this country and how little is often understood. But we’ve got to make the attempt. We’ve got to make the attempt to teach real American history, not only warts and all, but all. But now I forget what your question was, Linda.
Linda Chavez: Well, I think you answered it, whatever it was. But let me just suggest another — another way to approach this. I mean, I think when Peter, in his book, talks about how the idea of 1619 being, essentially, the founding moment of America because enslaved persons were brought to American shores — and the implication was that this introduced the whole concept of chattel slavery. And of course, we know that chattel slavery has existed as long as we have had civilization, and probably pre-civilization. Groups have attacked other groups of people and have enslaved — the victors have enslaved the vanquished. And this has gone on.
What seemed to me — and, I think, Peter, you made this point in your book — that is the most striking thing about American slavery is, number one, we fought a civil war. I think John mentioned this. We fought a civil war to end the practice. More Americans died in that war than in all other wars combined. And secondly, there was an abolition movement and a movement that was very strong here in the United States. There were abolitionists in England, as well. There were even abolitionists — at least abolitionists of Native American enslavement — in Spain.
So, isn’t that one of the ways you teach about what makes us distinct is to teach the story of the abolition of slavery alongside teaching the story of the enslavement of Africans in the United States, Peter?
Peter Wood: Yes. That’s part of what is exceptional in American exceptionalism. The abolitionist movement started in the English colonies. It predated the American founding. We had an abolitionist movement starting in some of the northern colonies well before the revolution took place. That was a leading factor in the complications that arose when we tried to write a constitution that would hold together all the colonies.
There are a couple other pieces of this, though, that are worth making explicit. The claim that chattel slavery started in the British colonies in August of 1619 is actually false. A pirate ship brought some slaves to Virginia, that is true. It was — the ship was the White Lion. It was British pirates under a Dutch flag that had raided a Spanish ship. But the slaves brought to Jamestown were not treated as slaves. Jamestown didn’t recognize slavery at that point. It turned them into indentured servants. In a few years, most of them — maybe all of them — were set free. Some of them intermarried with the white population. Some of them became prosperous landowners. Slavery, that horrible institution, really lay two generations into the future.
So, we’re starting the whole 1619 Project with a false premise. What Nikole Hannah-Jones said happened did not happen. We wandered our way into slavery bit by bit. It was really the invention of the cotton gin in 1792, I think it is, that creates the condition when slavery got scaled up to be a major institution in the cotton-growing states.
All that’s a history that needs to be told and it’s not to whitewash any piece of it. Slavery was an odious institution and recognized as such by many Americans who nonetheless got trapped by it. The prosperity of Thomas Jefferson was not something he was willing to give up to live up to his principles. All of us are hypocrites to some extent. I don’t think we can go back through our history and condemn every person who happened to live at a time and place where the institutions don’t yet meet our approval today.
But, in any case, how we tell our history has got to own the things that we now judge were very wrong, but we also have to own that we were a nation that was striving to be something better even before Thomas Jefferson penned the words that all men are created equal.
John Agresto: Can I add to that? I think that’s 100 percent correct. The interesting thing about slavery — and I want to talk about Lincoln for a second — was he didn’t have, and I don’t think we should have, the idea that it’s all been up and up and up, sort of a weak version of history, and every day in every way we keep getting better and better. Lincoln even says at one point that the condition of the slaves in the 1840s and ’50s was worse than it was before the invention of the cotton gin. In fact, it was much worse after the invention of the cotton gin than it was before because the cotton gin, an unforeseen event, which brought much good, but brought much evil to some people, was unforeseen.
But the interesting thing is — to go back to what Linda was saying — is I was always struck — in the Civil War that people would die for the freedom of others—that, in fact, they would even sing a song that would say — mostly a hymn, I guess –“As he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” Do you know what it takes to sing a song like that? It takes unbelievable principles to which you are truly attached, that you’re willing to die for. It’s not that I’m willing to die for my freedom, I’m willing to die for my property, I’m willing to die for my family. I’m willing to die for people I don’t know. That distinct of a –.[crosstalk]
Linda Chavez: That is amazing. Yes, that is absolutely amazing. But I do want to ask at least one major question before we get to other questions or have to leave our conversation, and that is, we’re all in agreement here that critical race theory is pernicious, that its full adoption in philosophy, in our curricula, in everything—all aspects of American society—would be a terrible thing.
I think we also agree that the history that was promoted in The 1619 Project, and some of the other materials that critical race theorists have put together, is very bad history. Having said that, what about these efforts by state legislatures to essentially ban the teaching of CRT or to ban these curricula in various states. Is that a good idea, Peter?
Peter Wood: Yes. I’m a proponent of that. I know that’s a controversial position to some extent, but the distinction has to be made. Teaching about an idea, and then trying — which is quite a different matter of teaching that that idea is valid. So, there’s nothing wrong teaching people that this idea of critical race theory is out there and this is what it looks like. It says that Americans are systemically racist, that every institution is infected by this, and so on — that that much knowledge is not being banned by anybody. But the question is, should that be presented by teachers as a revealed truth?
And what we get with critical race theory, or now that that term is — the left is running away from it — any of the other versions of it—diversity, equity, inclusion, 1619 Project, and so on—is this effort to say, “This is really how it is,” and any dissent from that point of view is, by circular reasoning, an illustration of the point of view. So, you’re a racist if you deny systemic racism.
It makes it impossible to have an open-minded discussion. But there’s another component of it as well, which is that these things are being introduced to children as young as six years old with the absurd claim that what they’re doing is opening up a dialogue. Well, what kind of dialogue does a first-grader enter into when you tell the first-grader that all white people are racist and all black people are victims? There’s no dialogue there. You are using the authority of the classroom teacher to impose on students a pernicious idea—an idea that will never be refuted. They’re going to go through all 12 grades of school with further reiterations of this, whether filtered through Howard Zinn or Nikole Hannah-Jones or any number of other ideologues who are being introduced into the classroom. That’s what needs to be challenged.
And I think it’s a wonderful thing that all across the country parents and members of communities are flooding into school board meetings and saying, “Cut it out.” Well, if that succeeds, you don’t need to pass state laws saying, “Cut it out.” But I’m afraid that since the school bureaucracies—the teachers, and the administrators—are so committed to this program, anything short of state laws that say, “No,” is not going to succeed in stopping this in a timely way.
John Agresto: And, I’m, to be honest, of a mixed mind about this. I know for a fact that if the federal government tried to ban this teaching, I would say, “No. Keep the federal government out of this as far you can keep it.” State governments — I worry about the imposition on education and teachers. Local school boards — I don’t have much trouble with that. They have to govern what should be taught and what will be taught in their classrooms. I know Peter doesn’t like hate speech laws, but maybe if the teacher is teaching that your mother’s a racist and your father’s a secret slaveholder in his heart, that’s hate speech. Maybe take him to court—take that teacher to court.
But, my real worry — the one reason I’m not so pessimistic about this—I wrote this recently—is that the image that the CRT and The 1619 the Hannah-Jones’s are teaching, is not an image of America that most ordinary American citizens, white or otherwise, recognize. It’s a picture that we know instinctively and intuitively is false. And Americans, to be honest, will not be shamed, they will not be insulted, and they will not be demeaned to betray what they know their country is or what their country has accomplished or what their country stands for. They just will not be — just as you can’t argue a man into slavery, you can’t argue a person of goodwill to think that America is fundamentally an evil country.
Now, we’ll be totally willing to see that racism — acknowledge that racism and racist evils are part of our history, that Tulsa happened, that Washington had slaves, that some aspects of racism may have been, or are even systemic. We, Americans, have all the defects of our common human nature. I was saying this before. But we also know that we have hoped to be, in ways, better than our natures, coaxed by these principles, coaxed by these ideals, to do unto others, to try to give equal opportunity to all. And no amount of badgering is going to move us to say or vote otherwise.
So, I just have more faith in the American people being able to say to their school boards and their teachers, “Get real. This is not the America that we know, and you know it as well as I do.”
Linda Chavez: I will intervene here because we are running out of time. We did eventually get some questions, and a couple of them — I’m just going to point to the first question that came from an anonymous attendee and said, “Aren’t you getting the causal direction wrong? Is CRT/1619 hyper-racialized curriculum causing our national disintegration, or is the shattered curriculum simply a result of our post-1964 Immigration Act demography?
I’m going to take a stab at answering that, as the person on here who spends most time on immigration. I think that’s absolutely wrong. In fact, critical race theory is promoted, almost exclusively, by white progressives and some in the black community. But neither of those groups are the result of post-1964 immigration and, in fact, one of the things that I think makes the whole teaching of critical race theory more difficult is that recent immigrants are often more patriotic and view themselves in what we think of as classically American terms than those whose ancestors have lived here for generations. And I can point you to the Pew Research Center and their various polling data on what — how, for example, Hispanics identify, what language they prefer to use. And in both respects, what they point to is the success of assimilation.
Let me get one more question in here — and that was to whether or not anyone has any idea how many school districts K-12 are, in fact, teaching some version of critical race theory. Peter, do you know, by any chance?
Peter Wood: I certainly don’t have a number to go with that. I have been trying my best to track the student — or the parent protests at school board meetings across the country. I have yet to find a state where that hasn’t already happened. I do know that the Pulitzer Center ceased to divulge how many tens of thousands of teachers and how many hundreds of school districts have formally adopted the 1619 curriculum.
I will give you the unscientific impression that it would be hard right now to find very many school districts in this country where some version of critical race theory — or likely now called diversity equity and inclusion — is not formally part of the curriculum. And where it is not formally part of the curriculum, you will still find teachers who have an affection for it and are finding ways to incorporate it. This is pretty much universal now in American K-12 schooling—public schools, private schools, parochial schools alike.
Linda Chavez: Ken Masugi asked a question about whether or not the fanaticism about race that CRT encompasses is not, in fact, quite a bit broader. And he points to a speech that President Biden gave during the campaign—the so-called Milwaukee speech—in which he said, even if the country is not ready for equity, he was going to go ahead with equity. And my answer to that would be — and either of you can weigh in as well — that I think this is a very important distinction—the distinction between equality before the law and equity. Equality and equity are not the same thing. So, those who are promoting equity are, in fact, promoting equal outcomes. And whether President Biden intended it to mean that or did not, that certainly is the way it is interpreted by others. John or Peter, you want to weigh in on that?
John Agresto: I’m not sure he knew that there was a fine distinction to be made. But the truth is, you’re absolutely right, and I don’t think the people on the other side, so to speak, understand that the more you let people be free, the more you push equality of opportunity, the more some will rise and some will fall. And the truth is, it will seem inequitable that there are some people better off, have more money, get the prettier husband — or the handsomer husband or the prettier wife. Those things are inequitable, but they are the result of equal rights and the results of treating all people equally rather than trying to make sure that everybody gets the same. Equality doesn’t mean sameness, although equity sometimes seems to mean sameness.
Linda Chavez: Well, I wish we had time to go through all of the questions, which came flooding in after our cutoff period, but we don’t. I will say that there were some questions in here on critical race theory and the various changes in curriculum at the college level — and we addressed mostly K-12 today. That might a topic for a whole different discussion, and certainly, we could have no better interlocutors with such a discussion than John Agresto and Peter Wood today.
And I want to thank both Peter and John for what I think was a very fruitful discussion. I think we covered a lot of territory, and I’m hopeful that those who were participating learned something. And Alida, I’m going to send it back to you.
Alida Kass: Thank you so much, Linda. Linda, Peter, and John, thank you all for your time and insight today. It was a really fascinating conversation, and, as always, I wish we could have continued for even longer. We welcome listener feedback by email at [email protected] Please join us tomorrow for a discussion focusing on antitrust, market power, and the expressive interests on digital platforms. Thanks, everyone, for joining us. This concludes today’s call. We are adjourned.
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