The Fourth of July arrives this year with the country in the midst of seething disagreements about the meaning of patriotism and the centrality of race in the nation’s history.
On the far right are those who have been willingly misled by purveyors of conspiracy theories and a twice-impeached president. They now believe that the rioters who invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were patriots on a par with those who took up arms in 1775. Liberals, meanwhile, are alarmed, fearing that the rise of the militant right, aided and abetted by many elected Republicans, is the opposite of patriotic and is truly a mortal threat to democracy in America.
Acting upon their own interpretation of patriotism, Republicans are also stirring up fears about a new interpretation of the American story – critical race theory – which asserts that the history of slavery and the ongoing systemic disadvantages it created for Black Americans should be taught in schools and addressed by governmental actions. Republicans say it is a curriculum designed to subvert young people’s love of country; a plot to erase a positive version of our national biography. Progressives respond by insisting such criticisms are the reactionary last gasps of a privileged white ruling class; that old myths must give way to a truthful reckoning with our past.
In the debate about Jan. 6, it is not difficult to see that one side is dangerously deluded. The debate over critical race theory is more nuanced. Yes, it is way past time to recognize that the heroes of the Confederacy were traitors to the Stars and Stripes, and their statues should be carted off to museums. Yes, it is time for all of us to grasp the brutality and consequences of slavery and Jim Crow, and learn about horrific events like the anti-Black violence in Tulsa a century ago. Yes, reparations in some targeted form might help to undo the damage done during centuries of discrimination and exclusion.
But, no, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson should not be defined simply as old white guys who owned slaves, nor should European immigrants and pioneers be portrayed as nothing but genocidal invaders. No, Abraham Lincoln should not be expelled from the pantheon of liberators because he made political calculations and compromises along his lifelong path toward achieving abolition. No, Ulysses S. Grant, the president who went to war against the Ku Klux Klan, should not be disavowed because he married into a slave-holding family as a young man.
And no, white kids do not need to be made to feel guilty about the sins of their ancestors. But, yes, they do need to be taught the full, complex story of our republic. They need to understand that the truest patriots dedicate themselves to making America a better homeland for every citizen, no matter the color of their skin, the language they speak, the religion they profess or the place they were born.
Happy Fourth of July.
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