Why are most US historians against Critical Race Theory?

Most of my colleagues appear determined to protect a version of our national history shaped by white supremacy.

Protesters hold placards that read stop critical race theory at a rally in the US
Opponents of Critical Race Theory protest outside of the Loudoun County School Board headquarters, in Ashburn, Virginia, US June 22, 2021. [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Any number of absurdities have been noted in the arguments of those attempting to make a boogeyman out of Critical Race Theory in order to exclude Black and Queer curricula and books from K-16 education in the United States.

Perhaps none of these arguments is more narcissistic and weird than the one put forward by the short-lived 1776 Commission – an advisory committee formed by President Donald Trump to respond to The 1619 Project and other attempts to advance a more complicated narrative of the American past.

“To be an American means something noble and good…[America’s principles]…laid the groundwork for [virtues like honesty, optimism, and determination] to grow and spread and forge America into the most just and glorious country in all of human history,” the Commission concluded in its criticism of Critical Race Theory-based projects in 2021. Anyone who believes that racism is central to the founding of the United States, the Commission argued, is toxic to the point of being anti-American and anti-patriotic.

It isn’t just that such arguments are unable to they do not withstand even the mildest scrutiny. There is another, more sinister problem with these efforts to attack histories that centre Black, Queer, and other marginalised people’s experiences in the US through attacks on Critical Race Theory: professional historians are behind most of them.

As a professional historian myself, I know that an overwhelming majority of academically-trained historians in this country have a problem with Critical Race Theory and with the idea that racism, queerphobia and other ills are DNA-deep in American and wider Western culture. The few historians like me who have claimed Critical Race Theory as a critical component in their writing and research are on the margins of the profession.

One of the biggest dustups over Critical Race Theory among leading historians was in 2021. The 1619 Project, which was first published by The New York Times Magazine in 2019 to mark the 400th anniversary of slavery in the US, had by then gone through two years’ worth of mostly ill-informed attacks. That September, veteran American historians Richard D Brown, Gordon Wood, Carol Berkin and three others published an open letter on Medium critiquing both The 1619 Project and those historians who have defended its work.

Offering what was by 2021 a well-worn critique of editor Nikole Hannah-Jones’s introductory essay to the project, the six wrote, “The [American] Revolution was a complicated event, subject to different interpretations; but the idea that the colonists – or even, in the Times’s amended version, ‘some of the colonists’ – revolted in order to protect slavery is beyond farfetched.”

What all critics of The 1619 Project, including those who penned this letter, seem to have in common is an unwavering belief that the American Revolution was a good thing. They all appear to see it as a world-changing event that forged a nation-state based on equality, freedom, and “the pursuit of happiness”. Thus they treat the existence of chattel slavery and the litany of laws that were in place to protect it in the 13 colonies as a mere aberration. They view the years between 1763 and 1789 as a sacred space, too sacred to sully with the accusation that preserving slavery – or really, systemic racism – might have been a motivating factor for independence.

This is why US historians like the ones who signed the open letter were so enraged by Hannah-Jones’s claim that “one of the primary reasons [some of] the colonists decided to declare their independence from Britain was because they wanted to protect the institution of slavery.”

As The 1619 Project explains, along with several other experts, prior to independence, those in the colonies were concerned that “the British would seek or were already seeking to disrupt in various ways the entrenched system of American slavery.” The British threat to American slavery at the time was perhaps only indirect. Yet Hannah-Jones and other experts are correct in their interpretation that those who wanted the American Revolution joined the fight in part to preserve their privileged positions and sources of income.

In the end, the American Revolution, as modern revolutions go, was a tepid one. It ended British rule only to put the colonies’ rich slave-owning leaders, the people who ran the 13 colonial governments, in charge of running the new nation-state. But this was not a failure. The revolution was always aimed at preserving – and not uprooting – the social order that placed the Founding Fathers and those like them on top and enslaved Africans at the bottom.

And this years-long, heated discussion over whether preserving slavery was a motivation for the American Revolution was only the tip of a mythmaking iceberg. The 1619 project and other historic accounts guided by Critical Race Theory faced many similar attacks and empty criticisms in recent years – many from professional historians.  America’s leading historians appear determined to protect at any cost a version of American history that they deem correct and sacred.

Thankfully the practitioners of Critical Race Theory – who view neither the founding fathers nor the revolution as “sacred” – are confronting and debunking all such myths and misrepresentations of America’s beginnings in quick succession. And they are not attempting to be apolitical or objective while doing so. They have a strong bias against social injustice and are very much activists working hard to show the world how deeply embedded systemic racism has always been in the DNA of the US and the West.

Of course, the efforts to demonstrate the centrality of racism to the fundamentals of the US and the West did not start with the coining of the term Critical Race Theory in 1989 –  Black folk have been speaking out about the endemic nature of racism in the US for two centuries.

Black abolitionist Martin R Delany in his 1852 book The Condition, Elevation, Emigration, and Destiny of the Colored People of the United States is but one example of this intellectual tradition. W E B Du Bois discussed the centrality of racism and slavery to the US and its founding in Black Reconstruction (1935). Afrofuturist writers like Ralph Ellison and Octavia Butler too had similar discussions in their works. And legal scholars like the late Derrick Bell, Patricia J Williams, and Kimberlé Crenshaw were readily busting myths about the beginnings of the US in the 1980s.

However, with Du Bois a prominent exception, most practitioners of what we now call Critical Race Theory have not been professional historians. And many professional historians who discuss Critical Race Theory today, even indirectly, appear to reject it for being “presentist”.

American Historical Association president James H Sweet articulated as much in a newsletter essay last August. “Doing history with integrity requires us to interpret elements of the past not through the optics of the present but within the worlds of our historical actors … History is not a heuristic tool for the articulation of an ideal imagined future,” he wrote.

Sweet, like many other historians, accuse those who practice Critical Race Theory of being political, subjective, moralistic, and too concerned with the present to deal with the past on its own imperfect terms.

As a professional historian who practices Critical Race Theory, I do not give much weight to such accusations of presentism, subjectivity and politicisation directed at my work and the works of other critical theorists. I do not care for these critiques because I know that all history is political, rooted in one biased interpretation or the other, and most importantly, is filtered through the lens of the present. Not all bias is bad, especially when it comes to social justice. Bias is actually much welcome when an approach like Critical Race Theory paves the way for the historian to infuse with history a real understanding of the human condition – past and present.

“We believe in social justice, but not at the expense of historical truth. Distorting history in the hope of achieving justice cannot bring justice, but it can harm every American, Black and White.” That was what Wood, Brown, Belkin and others wrote in their open letter about The 1619 project and the work of University of South Carolina historian Woody Holton defending it.

I find this idea self-serving, both as a professional historian and a Black man living in a virulently racist world and nation-state. Critical Race Theory is all about “historical truth”. Like a radio telescope, all who practice it are desperately trying to filter out as many of the distortions in the historical record about the nature and history of racism in the US and in the West as they can.

That cannot be said of the many historians who hide their petty jealousies of the success of writers, journalists, and legal scholars in the name of some fantasy notion of apolitical objectivity. They urgently need to stop and reassess their position, if they are to avoid inflicting further harm to our profession, and the American nation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.