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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: No, it’s not indoctrination

I'm fairly sure I've been taught something pretty close to so-called critical race theory.

Those who decry the theory are perhaps saying "aha"--that I stand as evidence of the human tragedy that can occur to one exposed to such indoctrination.

I'll lay it out and let readers ponder whether there is sinister indoctrination or valuable perspective in what I gleaned.

It was 1994. This newspaper sent me to a weekend getaway at DeGray Lodge for one of those Our Town retreats for Little Rock people put on by what was then called the National Conference of Christians and Jews, now the National Conference for Community and Justice. The purpose was to get sensitized on race, merely the issue of our time, particularly in Little Rock.

I mainly recall snippets, some powerful.

A Black lawyer told me during a break that at least I'd never written, as a colleague had, that Little Rock's schools were more than 50 percent Black "and getting worse."

A session leader asked for a show of hands by "European Americans," then, when class members looked around at each other, said, "That means white people."

A woman sitting across from me turned and said, as an issue of discrimination against Blacks dominated discussion, "What they don't seem to understand is that we're in an era of backlash now."

After the weekend's retreat, willing participants went into a series of home-meeting groups. In my living room one evening a Black woman said she could hardly wait for a Black private school in Little Rock. I lamented that our community was enduring the struggle, both ugly and noble, to desegregate schools racially, and now here she was longing to re-segregate.

She encouraged me to listen to myself: From 1957, Little Rock white people had increasingly huddled their kids in racially exclusive private academies, but only when she said Black people should have that option did the white guy wring his hands.

She said the important thing was the law--Brown v. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act. But if Black people wanted a private school, what of it?

I began to see the arrogance, even the white superiority, in my attitude. I was seeming to imply that integration was white missionary work for Blacks by putting them in the edifying presence of whites.

We were getting down to gritty truth. But America wasn't being besmirched. America was trying to be better, one living room at a time.

From these home meetings, a few participants were invited to ante up for a special two-day session with people from a racial sensitivity institute from New Orleans. And that was where we got what I think must have been critical race theory, or a close relative in emerging form.

Here is what we were told: Individual racism doesn't matter anymore. Individual racists are only their own problem. What matters is the lingering problem that evades and resists the law: embedded institutional or systemic racism.

A man told us the "real definition of racism," which, he said, was "race prejudice plus power."

He meant implicit power emanating from the established culture, the established business community and the established political institutions, all combining to control bank lending practices, retail practices, government planning and zoning practices and general cultural dominance to effect a result by which black people were consolidated in perpetuating poverty and lesser opportunity--to get the healthiest groceries, the best classroom learning, the best youth employment opportunities after school and on weekends, and the best infrastructure, leaving them only to liquor stores, drugs and crime.

You don't address those cancers, he told us, simply by making a Black person your police chief or school superintendent. That's an attempted short cut avoiding the hard but necessary truths.

I found it all not at all un-American, but quintessentially American--a festival of freedoms, of expression, advocacy, truth and introspection.

I went back to the office and wrote a column saying America was always a great country but not always a good country, and that the greatness was in large part attributable to our honest confrontation of, and quest to correct, the shortcomings in goodness.

If a garden-variety newspaper hack could get that in a couple of days, then I doubt our ruling conservative politicians ought to worry so much that our brightest high school kids couldn't.

"Indoctrination," which is the conservative charge, is getting people to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. I was not uncritical when the Black woman longed for Black private schools. I was free to call "BS." She and I also were free to engage in a vigorous back-and-forth. And I was free to begin amid that mildly uncomfortable dialogue to see her point in a way I hadn't before.

That's more education than indoctrination.

These bright kids today are apt to call "BS" at least as readily as I.

We need to better identify and define our terms in this debate. And we need to understand that America doesn't require fairy-tale fiction, or other protection from reality, to be great.

If a teacher somewhere in Arkansas is telling school kids that America is evil, then fire the teacher. But if the natural progression of education entails giving examples of America's failures in goodness, then I think our highest-achieving high school students could not only cope, but grow.

Then, as more light bulbs come on in individual American brains, the American terrain becomes more illuminated.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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