We don’t need critical race theory to teach about racial injustice, we just need facts

As someone who has taught about the origins of our government and the melancholy history of racism in America associated with our beginnings as a nation, I have been baffled by the discussions that are taking place around an arcane academic construct known as critical race theory. A preposterous idea has gained currency that in order to address the problems of slavery and race in America you must embrace critical race theory.

Perhaps it is because the origins of critical race theory are grounded in Marxist philosophy that the debate has become so charged. My own experience over 50 years of teaching American government, where I devote a substantial number of lectures to the early years of our republic, is that straightforward factual statements about the influence of slavery on our founders and the persistence of racism in our public policies are more readily grasped by students than by embedding them in a distinct theory.

Universities or theory factories?

Academic departments in universities are theory factories where scholars toil to develop theories—often quite complex ones—and force-feed them to students. This is especially true in the humanities and social sciences. High-level intellectual structures that are entirely appropriate for discussions among academics and in scholarly journals are often unwieldy for the 18 year-old mind not mention grade school children.

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Such is the case with critical race theory with its origins in Marxist thought that adapts the concept of the oppression of the proletariat to comport with the oppression of people of color. But public school teachers feeling the need to present to students our nation’s history of racial oppression would be guilty of pedagogical malpractice if they subjected a civics class to critical race theory; it would surprise me if very many of them do. That is why the policies promoted by governors, typically Republicans, that critical race theory should be banned from their state’s public schools are so idiotic, so irrelevant, and so manifestly designed to add fuel to the fires of the culture war.

Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.
Ross Baker, a professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.

My belief in academic freedom compels me to defend the use of critical race theory by my colleagues who embrace it. But it’s just not my cup of tea and, I believe, it is just so much extra packaging for simple truths that our revered Founding Fathers made a Faustian bargain in order to secure the ratification of the Constitution in the six states where slavery was prevalent.

The Editorial Board: Critical race theory fear is a mix of the predictable, the outlandish and the justified

The reason that men who knew better acquiesced to such constitutional monstrosities as the reduction of enslaved people to three-fifths of a white citizen for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives, or the requirement imposed on governors of northern states to return to their owners men and women fleeing slavery is really rather straightforward. Rejecting those provisions would have been a deal-breaker and the Southern delegates to the Constitutional Convention would have gone home to establish a slaveholding republic unconnected to the seven states that had largely rejected human bondage. There was also the belief that the country would not be economically viable without the exports produced by slave labor.

Critical race theory is unnecessary

The core of critical race theory is that racism is systemic in American society. It’s a slippery word. The case for racism’s embeddedness in American society can be made more simply and dramatically for students by relating such dramatic events as the Dred Scott case, or the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, or the scores of murders and lynchings or the disenfranchisement of black Americans by statute or intimidation or the impoverishment of African American families by discriminatory lending laws.

Do you really need an elaborate theoretical structure illuminate the dark spaces of American history? Students catch on and they readily grasp the fact that our Founding Fathers had some serious flaws without subjecting them to a theoretical avalanche.

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I urge teachers just to use the words of slave-owner Thomas Jefferson – that the prospect of a war between Americans over slaverylike a fire bell in the night, awakened me and filled me with terror” – rather boning up on a theory more suited to a scholarly colloquium than a grade school classroom. Let us celebrate Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence mindful of its many ironies that we need no elaborate intellectual framework to acknowledge.

Ross K. Baker is a distinguished professor of political science at Rutgers University and a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter: @Rosbake1

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Critical Race Theory: We need facts, not theory, to teach history