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This Juneteenth, We Are at War Over Our Right to Teach Black History

The right is trying to make truth-telling about U.S. history illegal because it fears the end of white supremacy.

The truth is illegal.

That’s what Black history teacher Valanna White realized at a routine, back-to-school meeting in August 2021. Tennessee had just banned teaching “critical race theory” in public schools. Now, if she or any other teacher dares to mention systemic racism in class, even during lessons on Black history, their licenses can be suspended or revoked.

She and her colleagues are not the only ones facing this terror. Tennessee is not the only state. Currently, 18 states have banned “critical race theory” and nine more are pushing for a ban.

Today is Juneteenth, a holiday created by Black people to celebrate slavery’s end. The painful irony is that it only recently became a federal holiday in 2021 amid right-wing attempts to outlaw learning about racism.

Conservatives are waging on war against what they call “woke ideology” or “critical race theory” — terms that they sloppily apply to any discussion of racism, Black history or structural injustice in this country. When conservatives rail against “wokeism,” they frame it as an intolerant and anti-American ethos that violates ideas of “color-blindness” and commits a grave offense by pulling down statues of colonizers and slaveowners.

But being “woke” — which is actually about offering a sustained criticism of white supremacy and working to overturn it — has always been part of the United States and always will be. It is how Black people defend themselves against white supremacy. As long as Republicans use racism in their drive to power, anti-racism will grow.

Wake Up!

“Florida is where woke goes to die,” shouted Gov. Ron DeSantis, speaking to fans in Tampa on November 8. He had just won reelection. He was feeling it, too: Chest puffy, head bobbing at the lectern, he delighted in baiting the left at his gubernatorial celebration.

Wokeism is the right wing’s boogeyman today, the new scary monster that members of the right point at and scream like they’re in a 1950s horror movie. It gets their blood pumping. The conservative Heritage Foundation made a video on “the dangers of wokeism.” Ex-president and convicted sexual abuser Donald Trump says wokeism “ruins your mind.” Black professor John McWhorter wrote a book, Woke Racism, and slammed wokeism as a religion of victimology. Even self-proclaimed liberal Bill Maher rages against it as too extreme, rolling his eyes at cherry-picked examples.

Meanwhile, in a display of either ignorance or lying, right-wingers have been trying to cite critical race theory as the origin of “wokeism.” But critical race theory is not what they say it is. Critical race theory is in fact a niche tradition created in the academy in the late 1960s by Black law professors who needed to make sense of the post-civil rights movement era. Legal victories were notched but racial inequality remained. So, these scholars started focusing on systems, rather than just on the bigot shouting slurs or the KKK mailing threatening letters. They argued that it was not enough to make public racism taboo if housing law, the criminal legal system, job discrimination, a poor tax base and poor schools all combine to create and recreate structural racism.

Old concepts were discarded. Critical race theorists realized the liberal idea of “color-blindness,” where one doesn’t see race, went from being a tool of progress to one of conservatism. If you didn’t see “race,” you didn’t see how the violence of the past creates violence now. You chose not to see how segregation and redlining sunk whole neighborhoods into poverty. You chose not to see how the ideal of meritocracy means rich white kids can get subsidized by parents to go for prized internships, while Black kids can’t afford to work and not get paid.

New concepts were created. In her 1989 article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex,” Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the idea of intersectionality to describe how many forms of oppression can tie up one’s life like a sticky, poisonous spiderweb.

Derrick Bell shined a light on interest convergence, or how the window of opportunity for social progress comes when the “interests” of the ruling class and the oppressed briefly overlap.

Patricia Hill Collins extolled standpoint theory, which elevated lived experience of oppression as a source of authority, instead of only basing it on quantifiable data like a science lab.

None of this was just academic. The cutting-edge work of critical race theory cared about saving people’s lives. These theorists wanted a brotha having a hard time at work because he sounded “too Black” to know his voice mattered. They wanted a Black family who put all their savings into a new house in a white neighborhood to be wary of tokenism. They wanted Black people in prison to read their essays and know they were born innocent.

Fear the Reaper

So how did critical race theory, a niche academic thing, become “wokeism” to the right wing?

Most right-wing blowhards neither know nor care about the niceties of critical race theory. They fear it and “wokeism” because they fear the end of white supremacy. Just look at the long line of villains, conspiracy theories and nightmares trotted out in the last few years. Trump told his followers that poor Mexican migrants were an M13 gang army. Tucker Carlson ranted about white replacement. QAnon believers yelled that Democrats drank baby blood. Now they’re screaming about how teachers are indoctrinating white children to hate themselves and hate America! And about how the Little Mermaid is Black!

What is this overreaction about? Conservatives are terrified that the violence their ancestors committed will be visited on them. They stole land from Native people, stole families from Africa — or, if they migrated after the founding crimes, enjoyed the systemic racism that stole life chances from people of color and gave it to them. In one incredible interview, Noam Chomsky cut to the point and said a toxic brew of guilt and fear drives the persecution complex of the U.S. right.

Terror at paying for history makes conservatives hallucinate dangers that do not exist. It inflates leftist ideas into a monster’s claws scraping on a window. Black Lives Matter swept in large waves of protest, climaxing in 2020 when possibly 26 million joined. Conservatives had a meltdown. A mostly peaceful movement for reformist goals was transformed by the right’s paranoid media echo chamber into a racial apocalypse. “Wokeism,” “white replacement” and “critical race theory” fused into one endless Hieronymus Bosch painting of Hell for right-wingers.

The right is so trapped by its ideology that it’s hunting teachers. Right now, right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty and No Left Turn in Education compile lists of books like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye or Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Parents are supported by a right-wing machine of lawyers, think tanks and media that offer tactical advice on how to pressure school officials to cut lessons on race. They noisily disrupt school board meetings, put up hyperbolic signs over towns and sue on behalf of white students, claiming racial discrimination.

Each new case and each new protest feeds right-wing media with fresh moms and dads “protecting” children from the “critical race theory” or “woke ideology.” It hits all the buttons. For conservatives suffering from historical guilt and fear, these parents give the right a clear conscience.

And there’s no doubt, if they could, they’d repeal Juneteenth Day as a federal holiday. And Martin Luther King Jr. Day, too. They erase, repeal and undo law after law until the U.S. was thrown back to the 1950s — or maybe the 1850s.

Why say this? Because the right is the political descendant of slave owners. The first ideology of United States is settler-colonialism; it was founded on racism and for most of its history viewed anti-racism as anti-patriotic. In the 19th century, it was banning books by Black abolitionists like Frederick Douglass or David Walker. Today it is Toni Morrison.

Call it “woke ideology.” Call it “critical race theory.” Call it what it is: The Black Freedom Movement; the political and artistic fight from the courts and universities, the streets to literature in order to secure justice.

Every Day Is Juneteenth Day

When Juneteenth was made into federal holiday, it was seen by many of my activist friends as empty symbolism from the Democrats. Kind of like a baby pacifier. The Democrats blocked real change. The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act did not pass. The Build Back Better Act did not pass. The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act did not pass, either.

The left now is at low tide. Internecine fights, posturing and dogmatism have hampered many organizations. No major protests currently flood the streets. The right is energized, banning books, pushing anti-gay laws and gutting voting rights. All this as Trump looms over the Republican nomination for president.

Juneteenth Day is more than a democratic participation award. It is the day we ask, “What is our relationship to freedom?” When Black people in Texas first brought steaming bowls of food and wore their best, danced and shared stories, mourned loss and celebrated new births, it was a family gathering.

Now Juneteenth Day is coast to coast. Even in the haze of summer, slightly buzzed and full, many of us think about the origin of the holiday. Enslaved ancestors who were among the last to know slavery ended. What a reminder of how precious and fragile freedom is.

Right-wingers — the political descendants of slave-owners — are trying to erase everything we built, every victory we have achieved. Essentially, they want to erase their crimes… because they want to commit more of them.

It is scary. But our ancestors overcame slavery and war. The great distance we crossed from chains to citizenship means all the laws, all the violence, all the lies racists used didn’t stop us. We have the truth in our back pocket. We’re woke.

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