A well-devised or contrived political wedge issue is pure political gold. Anyone who has ever managed a political campaign knows that.
Political wedge issues often force voters to make political decisions, even when the issue does not represent an impending public policy decision. The undecided voter is often swayed by being for or against an issue that is imputed to be favored or opposed by one of the political parties or by one of the candidates for office.
Some wedge issues are entirely legitimate. Even before there was a United States of America or any American political parties, Thomas Paine, in 1775, created a world-changing political wedge issue when he published Common Sense. Common Sense made the case that the American colonists should be focusing on independence from rather than reconciliation with England. While they were not yet voters in national elections, the colonists were presented with a choice. Were they for allegiance to England or for self-determination. At the time, that was about as controversial as any wedge issue could be, but it was a legitimate issue. Independence rather than reconciliation was a wedge issue for the ages.
Critical Race Theory is not really an issue that school boards in America are pursuing. Some politicians, however, have erected it as a great American bugaboo, creating angst among voters way out of proportion to any existing reality. Critical Race Theory has become a raging wedge issue.
Political wedge issues are commonplace in American political discourse. For example, most Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, today, support universal access to quality healthcare, especially after our long COVID-19 ordeal. However, a dozen years ago, access to healthcare became a magnet for wedge issues. Republicans, led by Sarah Palin, created a compelling wedge issue in fighting the Affordable Care Act by raising the specter of “death panels.” There were no such provisions in the Affordable Care Act, but it dominated much of the debate a dozen years ago. Republican criticism of the Affordable Care Act isn’t heard much today, but wedge issues such as the death panel controversy fanned the flames of discord when the Affordable Care Act was being debated.
So, today, politicians and others are rallying citizens to fight against a rather non-existent public-school movement to teach Critical Race Theory. Political apoplexy over Critical Race Theory presupposes that teaching it is on public school board agendas all over the country. It isn’t.
Critical Race Theory is a forty-year-old movement that focuses on the root causes of racism, the pervasiveness of racism, the alleged centrality of racism, and the considerable lingering impact of systemic racism. Critical Race Theory has become a revisited topic in some academic circles, among various civil rights scholars and activists, and more recently, spurred on by Black Lives Matter activists.
However, few, if any, school boards are pushing to incorporate Critical Race Theory into public school curricula. Creating a controversy over the teaching of Critical Race Theory even though there is little to no teaching of Critical Race Theory in America is a textbook exercise in wedge-issue creation. It forces voters to decide for or against a happening that isn’t happening.
Does race, including racism, have any place in American education? Of course. It would be irresponsible (and impossible) to sidestep an integral part of our own history. Should we teach Americans, especially young white Americans, that they are, by definition, guilty of racism or guilty of the sins of their forbears? No, of course not. Should Americans be taught the lingering effects of racism? Why not? Ignorance is not bliss. It is the handmaiden of demagoguery. Is stigmatizing any cohort of Americans for the behavior of any other cohort of Americans ever justified? No, never. Should a more just society be an essential American ideal? Always. If America means anything, it means justice for all. Without justice for all, there is no justice at all.
And there you have a reasonable way to address the complexities of the generations-old and now rapidly evolving question of race in America. Teaching American history should not embrace an obsession with race or racism, but, at an appropriate grade level, an understanding of the role and toll of racism in the American experience. We should neither avoid it nor should we obsess over it. We should simply be determined to learn from it and to continue to pursue that more perfect union; that work in progress that was the promise of America.
To pretend that racism doesn’t exist in America is absurd. To pretend that we haven’t made substantial progress in confronting racism in America is equally absurd.
All comments regarding these essays, whether they express agreement, disagreement, or an alternate view, are appreciated and welcome. Comments that do not pertain to the subject of the essay or which are ad hominem references to other commenters are not acceptable and will be deleted.