President Donald Trump
Credit: White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

For the last couple of months, Donald Trump has been promising to restore patriotic education in our schools. He mentioned it during his speech at the Republican Convention, during a press conference, and at his campaign rally in Nevada this week. In the midst of his attacks on the 1619 Project—a series published by the New York Times documenting the impact of slavery on our country’s history—it hasn’t been difficult to guess what the president means by that promise, even though his references have been fairly cryptic.

But during a speech at the National Archives on Thursday, the president clarified his intentions. He directly attacked the 1619 Project by calling it “ideological poison” that would “dissolve the civic bonds” in America. In addition, he claimed that critical race theory is “toxic propaganda,” suggesting that it is an effort to impose tyranny and a “new segregation.” He even went so far as to claim that it was abuse to teach it to children.

That is the context in which Trump proposes to restore patriotic education. He announced the formation of a “1776 Commission” (a direct hit on the 1619 Project) to promote the effort. But as is often the case with the president, his remarks were long on attacks and short on his proposed alternatives, although he did say that, “We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” The crux of the matter for him is to ensure that school curriculums are stripped of the perspective of people of color and that American history is viewed as white history.  

It is important to keep in mind what Trump is referring to when he talks about critical race theory. According to the UCLA School of Public Affairs, it was developed by legal scholars in order to provide an analysis of race and racism from a legal perspective. 

CRT recognizes that racism is ingrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. 

In other words, it is a theory that examines the role of systemic racism, which has been embedded in institutions and affects people of color in almost every aspect of their lives—including housing, employment, education, health, and wealth—regardless of the racist attitudes of individuals.

Trump presented a straw man when he suggested that teaching critical race theory to children was akin to child abuse. No one is suggesting that we immerse six-year-olds in all of that any more than we would expect them to be able to handle a course in macroeconomics. Instead, CRT informs how we teach children in a way that “perpetuates the marginalization of people of color.”

That is precisely what threatens both Trump and his supporters. To confront the role that racism plays in our society is a two-step process. First of all, we must recognize that, since our founding, U.S. institutions have been grounded in white supremacy. Secondly, in order to ensure that our principles of equality and justice apply to everyone, those institutions have to change.

That first step presents an obstacle for people like Trump, who view any admission of error as a sign of weakness. During his speech on Thursday, the president said that the narratives being pushed by the left resemble the anti-American propaganda of our adversaries, concluding that “both groups want to see America weakened, derided and totally diminished.”

But Trump’s approach is the one that broadcasts weakness. It takes strength to examine ourselves, identify shortcomings, and correct them to the best of our ability. It is at moments when we’ve been able to do that as a country that we have demonstrated our exceptionalism. As Barack Obama said during his speech at the 50th anniversary of the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, that is what it means to be patriotic.

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?…

For we were born of change.  We broke the old aristocracies, declaring ourselves entitled not by bloodline, but endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights.  We secure our rights and responsibilities through a system of self-government, of and by and for the people.  That’s why we argue and fight with so much passion and conviction — because we know our efforts matter.  We know America is what we make of it.

In many ways, what is on the ballot in November are these two views of what it means to be an American. Are we a country that is too afraid to even admit our shortcomings, or are we strong enough to be self-critical and seize our power to continue the process of aligning the country with our highest ideals?   

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