Attacks on race education are attacks on spiritual and democratic growth

‘Critical race theory’ fearmongering seeks to paint anyone who wants to speak truth as un-American, unpatriotic and un-Christian.

USA Today
By Rev. Liz Theoharis
July 10, 2021

In 2018, a year after then-President Donald Trump took office, I was in Kentucky with the Poor People’s Campaign, along with the Rev. Dr. William Barber. We were in Harlan County, home to historic labor struggles that led to better wages and working conditions for people across the nation, but now a place with some of the highest poverty rates in our country. In the middle of the afternoon, hundreds of residents gathered together to talk about the reasons why poverty is so widespread today and the central role poor people can play in leading a spiritual and material revival. 

As we were drawing the connection between racist voter suppression laws and high levels of poverty, low wages and the lack of health care among people of all races, I’ll never forget the white man who stood up and addressed the crowd. “Damn, they’re playing us,” he said. 

By “they,” he meant people like the state’s elected officials and the heads of coal companies in Harlan County who were fighting efforts to adequately compensate and treat former miners for black lung disease. He was also talking about national politicians who were eager to cut taxes for corporations and the wealthiest among us while refusing to give aid to the poor, to immigrants and to people desperate to see a doctor without falling into debt. 

In that moment, he recognized a truth that has been at the heart of my work as an anti-poverty advocate, faith leader, mother and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: that our mutual interests – for good health care, safe and adequate housing, clean air and water, and a decent life for our families – can unite us. But what holds us back is that too often, those in power seek to divide us with racist narratives about who is deserving of a good life and who is not. 

That happened when I was a welfare rights advocate in the 1990s, when the cynical narrative of the Black so-called welfare queen was used to gut programs that benefited a large number of poor white families, who are the majority of poor people in our country. And it’s what is happening now with the coordinated right-wing attack on teaching the realities of systemic racism, what Fox News pundits, Republican politicians, conservative think tanks and white evangelical leaders have cynically and superficially demonized as “critical race theory.” 

This fearmongering, which seeks to paint anyone who wants to speak the truth about systemic racism as un-American, unpatriotic and even un-Christian, is the latest campaign to distract us from the work of uplifting all people from poverty and of reducing inequality, work that is both a moral responsibility and a material necessity. It comes as no surprise that many of the states pushing bills to deny teaching students the truth about our country’s past and present have some of the highest poverty rates and  disparities in the country. 

It’s an effort to get the growing numbers of white people who are beginning to have honest conversations about race and racism to stop this work of spiritual growth, growth that can lead to a greater sense of connection and an intrinsic understanding that our interests are connected – what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. so beautifully described as the “beloved community.”

The goals of these efforts, along with new voter suppression laws passed by Republicans in more than a dozen states targeting the ability of voters of color to have a say in our democracy, is to keep us rooted in the politics of the past. 

Like the man in Harlan County stated in 2018, they’re playing us. 

What are those pushing these attacks so afraid of? The answer is obvious. They’re terrified of our nation becoming a true multiracial democracy, one where more and more white Americans are opening our eyes to the realities of how systemic racism has hurt us all, while benefiting only the wealthiest among us. They’re scared of the power we can wield when we realize that we can all thrive when we band together to refuse scarcity politics. It’s a reality that President Joe Biden acknowledged earlier this year in his joint address to Congress, when he tied the failure of trickle-down economics to, as he put it, the “systemic racism that plagues American life.” Biden’s ambitious proposals to invest in green jobs, in childcare and in caring for our elders are popular with a majority of Americans.

His relief package will significantly cut child poverty, lifting up large numbers of Black, Latinx and Indigenous families, as well as white families, like so many of those I met in Harlan County. In creating this new boogeyman, conservative leaders hope to stop this progress in its tracks, by using the oldest trick in their playbook – the creation of false divisions through scare tactics. 

These extremists would love nothing more than for our country to continue on our path toward what King called “spiritual death,” the moral and material withering that occurs when we refuse to reckon with our racism and allow divide-and-conquer politics to rule the day and distort our moral priorities. What’s at stake is nothing less than the heart and soul of our democracy, both as individuals and as a nation. 

But, as I learned from leaders in Kentucky, we cannot allow ourselves to once again be divided by cynical fearmongering – instead, let us recommit to reviving the spiritual health of our nation, a revival that demands we not turn away from our history, but face it full on. 

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.