Updated: May 22
The challenge of Critical Race Theory is not so much about canceling culture but rather about deciding what we should emphasize in telling our national story.
I used to ask my students to write a one-page history of the United States. With only one page, they had to select just a few dots and then connect them. The connections were often implicit. Still, there was the war story, the immigrant story, the pre-colonial story, the western expansion story, and so on. Even in these short stories, they tried to make them coherent.
Most stories have some coherence: the parts fit together to make some kind of whole. That doesn’t mean, however, that a coherent story is a good story. The story the KKK told itself probably had as much coherence for them as the story the abolitionists told themselves. A coherent story may make sense, in other words, if you live inside the story, but may appear as non-sense from the outside. In fact, the process of moving inside and outside of stories is about the only way you can both appreciate a story’s coherence and also evaluate it. We need multiple stories, in other words, to really understand the truth of a story’s coherence.
If you have multiple stories, then you can apply what I call in A Climate of Justice “the principle of coherence.".
If you cannot understand A without understanding B, then you cannot understand B without A.
If we were to apply this principle to US history, it would look like this:
If you cannot understand Black Americans without understanding White Americans, then you cannot understand White Americans without understanding Black Americans.
Coherence, in other words, includes those elements that are necessary for seeing how one element has been constructed or created by another. Not only do we need black America to understand white America, but we also need both black and white America to understand America. A story that tells the tale of only white America, in other words, is incoherent.
Critical Race Theory says among other things that we cannot understand America without thinking about race, not in a biological sense, but in a social sense. Thinking about race relations is necessary to tell a coherent American story. We can do this. In fact, the resources are now available by walking around the National Mall.
We could begin with the Washington and Jefferson Memorials, but remember they were both enslavers. Maybe it’s better if we begin with the Museum of African America History and Culture, then take a walk through the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and a visit to the Native American Museum. From there we could visit the various war memorials and end our walk at the Abraham Lincoln Memorial. If we could imagine the relationships among these different memorials, we might get a good idea of what American coherence feels like. We might even find ourselves yearning for a climate of justice.