As a Canadian with a nodding acquaintance of things American (I pursued graduate studies including American religious history at Wheaton College and The University of Chicago), I have been bemused by the furore lashing my southern cousins over Critical Race Theory. Why in the world is this a thing?
As I understand the basics of Critical Race Theory, based as it is on the mid-century Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, CRT essentially looks for trouble it’s pretty sure is there. What are the odds that a group of privileged white men—such as America’s Founding Fathers—would set up a legal, judicial, economic, and cultural situation that didn’t privilege white men? CRT would say, “Zero.”
And so would every other sensible person, right? CRT seems like just another analytical tool, along with other critical expectations of sexism, classism, and the rest, that would be almost certainly useful in any serious examination of American culture.
We often miss seeing what we aren't looking for, and CRT reminds us to look for what's likely there: white Americans, who long enslaved and to this day have a vexed relationship with black Americans, fostering a legal system that advantages them by race. Sounds simply sensible.
So why are governors, legislatures, school boards, and universities up in arms over such a banal expectation? From a Canadian point of view, the controversy seems absurdly disproportionate.
But then, we Canadians don’t think all that much of, or about, our Constitution. And Americans really, really do think that much of theirs.
We Canadians, in fact, got along nicely with a British version of our constitution from the time of original Confederation (1867) until 1982. And even now most of us can’t recite a single phrase of our (new) constitutive document.
Americans, however, take oaths to “support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Not to defend America per se, or the United States government, or the President, or the flag, but the Constitution and laws.
As a Canadian living in the U.S. for a decade, I became deeply impressed—especially on the Fourth of July—at how Americans typically regarded the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—and even, for some, the Federalist Papers. These documents made America. As such, they clearly were invested with positively sacred status.
To assume as CRT does, therefore, that the American system of jurisprudence is inherently and importantly racist is to assume that the Constitution is racist. And to assume that the Constitution is racist is to assume that America is racist.
And now we’re cutting to the heart of the messianic vision of America: John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” (as he preached to the colonists about to found the Massachusetts Bay colony), the beacon of light to old Europe, the nation whose Manifest Destiny it has been to rule North America and extend liberty, democracy, and free enterprise to the world.
To assume systemic racism in American jurisprudence is to assume that America is, in fact, a Bad Nation. So now we’re in the realm, not of different scholarly interpretations of the history of the American legal system, but of fidelity versus treachery, loyalty versus sedition. Now the outrage—for that is what so much of this reaction surely is—makes sense.
The informed Canadian might shake her head at this turmoil. Is it really news that America has a race problem—a deep and broad race problem—going back at least to 1776 (or 1619)?
It surely isn’t. But what goes far deeper than the sting of prodded conscience for Americans outraged by CRT is the wound of assailing the very web that holds America together as an idea. CRT threatens the structure that bound the original thirteen colonies and that binds the disparate fifty States into something United to this day.
Attacking the Constitution makes you a domestic enemy. And Americans know what to do with enemies.
And yet. And yet. Even a Canadian with only a nodding acquaintance with things American knows that in that very Constitution seems confirmation of the entire CRT agenda.
Article one, section two of the Constitution of the United States used to declare that any person who was not free would be counted as three-fifths of a free individual for the purposes of determining congressional representation. This is a clause transparently uninterested in the welfare of those unfree (nonwhite) persons but designed instead to determine how many (white) men would be named to the federal government.
Yes, that notorious clause has been replaced by the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments. But when even your sacred Constitution requires that much remediation, what else needs spotting and fixing?
Indeed, when CRT can make its case just that immediately, the friendly outsider worries that these disputes about CRT will not soon be reduced to mere disputes about . . . CRT. ‘Way too much is at stake, since the very question of national loyalty has been put front and center.
This Canadian can only step back, then, and whisper, “God bless America.”