The controversy over critical race theory has brought into focus the neglected history of our amazing human mosaic. For years, I taught American Ethnic Studies and Race Relations, with the emphasis on the histories and cultures of the various ethnic groups, Euro-Americans and people of color, who have made this country what it is.
I always included Euro Americans, the preferred term in Ethnic Studies for “white people,” in my classes. This made for criticism from those who felt that Ethnic Studies should be about BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color). But as I always point out, if we want true diversity, which Ethnic Studies is supposed to create, then we have to include white people, especially white males.
The examination of ethnicity, while it might include a study of the role of race, is mainly about culture. Culture determines how we organize our lives, how we live. Culture decides our values and what is important to us. The immigrant groups who have come to America have had their distinct cultures, starting with the English Americans who are erroneously not considered “ethnics.” Cultural ethnic groups still have their differences, no matter how assimilated they are. All have histories and experiences both good and bad in this country. All have made contributions to America.
Native Americans were here to greet the newcomers but because Europeans often practiced genocide against them, their contributions are overlooked. My classes were an objective look at the beautiful face of America. But we didn’t forget the warts that disfigure that beautiful face.
So, with the beauty and the warts and the whole ball of wax, my aim was to always teach truth, to lay blame where blame is justified but to always give credit where credit is due. And that is still my purpose. Because the quilt of America is woven with threads of joy and great hope, and, yes, with the strands of legal racism and the chains of slavery, all inextricably intertwined, I called my Ethnic Studies classes “American Ethnic Studies.”
The main theme in this discipline, unique to America, is the story of struggle, but also the inexorable march toward greater freedom, greater inclusion, greater equality. Sometimes it might not seem that way, but it is true. In spite of many setbacks, and many naysayers, we are marching toward greatness.
We never mentioned critical race theory in my undergraduate classes. CRT was reserved for graduate seminars. But there was never indoctrination. Among the more advanced graduate students who had taken the lower level Ethnic Studies classes, and were thus prepared to look at things from a broader perspective, there was candid discussion of the effects of racism on our domestic policies.
That’s what CRT does, examines how racism has affected us. There’s not enough space here to list all the racist things, but we know about them. And that’s how I understood CRT. My students also understood it that way. CRT was a tool for critical analysis, not some blanket indictment of America as irrevocably and hopelessly racist.
CRT is not the threat that nonacademics, who don’t understand higher education, think it is. There is other knowledge, other ways to look at our past, our present and our future. The academic discipline of American Ethnic Studies is one such way. And it is vital.
It shows the excellence of American education and the maturity of this country. A mature nation is proud of its achievements, but never hides any part of its past. Every country has its original sins, but if it is strong and secure in its identity it never sweeps ugliness under the rug. Mature nations acknowledge the good and the bad.
Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS. He teaches US Southwest Studies and Military History. He is a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.