Critical race theory: “Hiding our history weakens us”

Pictures: NAACP-LDFWikimedia Commons

A Florida bill bars any teacher in the state from providing information on all the brutality of our country’s history of black slavery, apartheid Jim Crow that followed serial atrocities, including including terrorism lynching, and the legacy of this in contemporary institutionalized racial prejudice. The official reason, right there in the text of the law, is that knowing our authentic history might cause some people to “to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of one’s race, color, sex or national origin”.

There is another way.

Two years ago, my wife and I undertook a pilgrimage to Auschwitz/Birkenau organized and facilitated by the Zen Peacemakers. We stayed for a week in a retreat center near the gates of the camps and every day and almost every evening we visited the miserable barracks, dungeons and torture chambers, gas chambers, crematoria and museums of horrible memories. We sat in meditation and prayer on the railway platform where the cattle cars unloaded their traumatized prisoners, most condemned to die there.

Our retreating comrades came from many countries, including the United States, Israel and Germany.

I am Jewish. My father emigrated from the pallor of colonization in Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, as did my mother’s parents. Countless relatives of mine who couldn’t leave were wiped out a generation later in the holocaust.

Every day on our pilgrimage to Auschwitz, we gathered in small groups and shared all that was going on in our hearts and minds as we participated in this emotionally shattering confrontation with Nazi atrocities on an industrial scale. Naturally, I identified with the victims and was immersed in the suffering of those who may have been members of my own extended family. Our German companions faced participation, complicity, or at least silence in the face of the mass brutality of their ancestors.

I was touched by their courage and their humility, their willingness to face what their own parents and grandparents had wrought. They felt compelled to do so as part of their own healing journey. The path to the fulfillment of their own humanity lay along the path of remembrance to the heart of understanding.

They no more viewed themselves in a negative light than the Jews among us viewed them that way. On the contrary, their openness and humility have given them the gift of seeing themselves as human beings on a common journey towards healing that denial only suppresses. And what is deleted does not disappear. It festers unconsciously and causes attitude and behavior in the dark corners of our being. Feelings of discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress can be doorways into the hallways of healing if we walk through and see what they hide.

We all knew that there is still a great deal of anti-Semitism in contemporary Germany, in Poland where Auschwitz is located, and in many other countries controlled by the Reich during the war. To deal with it effectively, we must first not deny it.

I fear that these German men and women have the strength that the Americans who oppose the teaching of the full story of the history of racial oppression in our own country do not have.

Upon our return from Auschwitz, we traveled to some of the sites of the most divisive civil rights struggles in the southern United States in the towns of Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, where the legacy of supremacy genocidal white woman and the struggles against her are lively.

We considered the likelihood, if we had lived as white people in these towns in the 1960s, that we would have been brave enough to join the Freedom Riders and other justice and equality activists. After all, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic letter from his Birmingham jail cell was written to white clergy, including rabbis, who did not support what he was doing.

In Auschwitz, by identifying with the victims, we witnessed the Holocaust. In Alabama, we now faced the atrocity of violent racism from the perspective of the oppressors. We share our humanity with the perpetrators and victims of all atrocities. This awareness is crucial for healing our own hearts and cultivating compassionate action in our present lives.

Displaying the swastika is prohibited in Germany, but not here. And the Confederate battle flag flies boldly across the country and was carried to the Capitol on January 6, 2021. On that terrible occasion, one attendee wore a shirt with the message “Camp Auschwitz.”

There has never been a full consideration of the racism that is woven into the fabric of our nation. And many are determined that there never will be. Lucid witness, the first step to healing, must be banned in Florida and elsewhere by those determined to maintain the power and privilege that comes from living within self-enhancing cultural stories that also sustain the oppression of others whose stories are suppressed.

Hiding our history makes us weaker, not stronger. Dealing with difficult feelings can bring us healing and wholeness, and bring us closer. But only, of course, if that’s what we want.

Jonathan Klate writes regularly about spirituality, political ideology and the relationship between these two.

Sharon D. Cole