The matter of race in U.S. history

There is a new buzz-word being foisted upon us by the far right called “Critical Race Theory.” The underlying assumption is that there is some kind of conspiracy to brain-wash our kids as to how race is taught in the schools.

In that regard, I found helpful a recent article written by Michael Gerson. Gerson is someone I would call an “old-school” Republican. He served in the White House (pre-Trump) during the Presidency of George W. Bush. What also links me to Gerson a bit, is that we both went to small, Christian liberal arts colleges. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois, and I went to Houghton College here in western New York.

I am not sure what Gerson studied in college, but I majored in history. The school I attended was founded by the Wesleyan Methodist Church, an off-shoot of Methodism which had advocated the abolishment of slavery in the United States. The matter of race being part of our federal Constitution, I don’t believe, has ever been questioned. The 3/5ths compromise where black slaves were counted as 3/5ths of a person for apportioning representation in the House of Representatives, was in the original Constitution. It was a “compromise” which legitimized slavery and without which a consensus would probably never have been reached between North and South to form a United States in the first place. Ultimately, it would take a Civil War to settle the question, emancipate the slaves and eliminate the 3/5ths policy of counting citizens.

Gerson’s recent article focused on the debate and thinking of two men very involved in the abolitionist cause back then: William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass. Both men started out believing that the 3/5ths clause legitimizing slavery in the country made the Constitution an evil instrument “dripping in blood.”

However, as the Civil War went on, Douglass changed his mind. “Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted,” he said, “the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”

Gerson ended his article with these words: “Douglass remains the model for dealing with racism — in his righteous anger at systematic corruption in the American experiment, and in his belief in the redeeming power of American ideals and institutions. A sound education will cultivate both.”

The only thing I might add to Gerson’s analysis is to remember again a methodology I was taught in college — study history and listen to the facts and lessons it teaches. The inequities which were written into the original Constitution brought the country ultimately into Civil War — an estimated 600,000 Americans died in the fighting, the forces in the North prevailed, the Union was saved, and President Lincoln got the 13th Amendment passed abolishing slavery.

The residue and legacy of slavery lingers on, and Americans continue to struggle with it. “Racism” is a word that is harsh and divides, so is a term I don’t like using. Nevertheless, a discussion of race, how it defined slavery, and the history of how all of this has played out in the American experience is part of who we are. It is not a “theory” to be taught but a history to be studied and understood.

Rolland Kidder is a Stow resident.


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