I Went to School in Alabama. We Desperately Needed Critical Race Theory | Opinion

I heard about the Ku Klux Klan for the first time when I was 14, in school. The way I remember it, my eight grade teacher informed us during an English class that the KKK wasn't so bad at first, that it started out as a vigilante force for defenseless Southerners who were being preyed upon by Yankees and free Black Americans during Reconstruction. Of course, this isn't true; the Klan was always about racial oppression and white terrorism. That's not how we learned it in my rural Alabama public school.

Incredibly, this wasn't the only false or outright racist thing I heard from educators in the six years I spent in middle school and high school there, from 1999-2005. I was also taught that there wasn't a "Civil War" but a "War of Northern Aggression," which was waged not to abolish slavery but to "end state's rights."

The author in high school
The author in high school

From all these alternate facts and twisted narratives, I did learn something true: that history is fungible and can be shaped to suit any region's needs. And it's this truth—along with a correct understanding of American history—that many across the nation are trying to ban from schools, stubbornly resisting hard realities about race and American history. The culture war over critical race theory—a loose academic framework that exposes systemic racism—has many white folks in an uproar over the thought of their kids learning that the United States is, and has been, a racist society.

That's what critical race theory is: another take on American history that focuses on what this country has always sought to bury: the systemic racial hierarchy that helped build it.

And that's what many oppose. Republicans in more than two dozen states have recently been proposing bills that limit educational discussions on race and racism in the U.S.—potentially stifling that conversation in schools before it's even begun.

As someone who was born and raised in the Deep South, I could not disagree more with these attempts to stifle an accounting of America's racist past and even present. To people like me who attended small public schools in rural or remote areas, classes that delve into CRT would be instrumental in countering what feels like an overwhelming culture of deliberate ignorance toward our own history.

critical race theory
A sculpture marking the Children's Crusade, across from the 16th Street Baptist Church, a Civil Rights historical site, is seen during a protest in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Stop Asian Hate and the unionization of Amazon workers at Kelly Ingram Park on March 27, 2021 in Birmingham, Alabama. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

And boy, was there a lot of ignorance. In addition to that English instructor who "lectured" about the Klan, I remember a history teacher at that same school saying during a lesson on the Civil War that most slaves were treated well because mistreated slaves simply ran away or refused to work. He talked about slavery as if it were animal abuse, even likened beating a human to beating a dog that would "run away from its owner."

At the time, no students questioned these assertions, even those of us who knew that they were lies. At fifteen, I was afraid to speak up because I didn't know how many of my peers and their families felt the same way. I didn't have the courage to question this teacher who was also a respected pastor in our community.

Fortunately, I had a family that thought differently, that questioned or exploded the alternate-reality narratives I encountered at school; as the only Jewish family in a small conservative town of less than 2,000, we always stood a bit apart. But in these isolated country communities, how many never hear a challenge to the idea of white privilege or white supremacy? How many go to school and hear the same from educators as from prejudiced parents and racist family members or friends?

For many people in poor or rural areas, a high school or middle school critical race theory course might be their only exposure to a different perspective of American history, a perspective from the oppressed.

Growing up in the Deep South also taught me that the veiled language of racism is not just spoken with a Southern accent, and that CRT would benefit schools and universities across the U.S. Too often in this country, racism and segregation are compartmentalized, discussed as if they are regional issues—a Southern or conservative problem—when in reality racism isn't even just a national issue, it's global.

If we're ever going to break or bend history's vicious repetitions, then we need to be honest about how we as a country got here—and part of that is teaching and embracing critical race theory.

Jeffery Dingler has written for the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Salmagundi, and Saratoga Living. A graduate of Skidmore College, he has worked as a teacher, guitar player, and tent laborer.

The views in this article are the writer's own.