It came as a shock to many Portlanders when, following her win at the polls, newly elected Charter Commissioner Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef called City Manager Jon Jennings a white supremacist. I don’t know precisely what Mr. Jennings has done to earn such opprobrium, but I’m not entirely surprised at the accusation: Welcome to critical race theory!

This ideology, which has had a powerful influence in academia over the past few decades and is now shaping the wider culture, sets a low bar for racism. You don’t have to be a hater or a bigot to be a racist. You just have to be part of a power structure that is pervaded by racism or the passive beneficiary of systemic racism. Essentially this makes white Americans racist just for being white Americans, unless you can prove your bona fides to the arbiters of political correctness by actively engaging in anti-racist activities. Not surprisingly, these align with the politics of the far left, such as defunding the police, “checking” your privilege, supporting reparations for slavery and suppressing dissenting views.

All this makes for a wonderfully effective political weapon: “Support our agenda or we’ll brand you a racist.” All it takes for this weapon to work is for people to be intimidated by it. I applaud Mayor Kate Snyder, Councilor Spencer Thibodeau and others for publicly defending Mr. Jennings and standing up to this bullying rhetoric.

Coincidentally, the election that propelled Ms. Sheik-Yousef to office also approved the school budget. Councilors who initially resisted sending the increased budget to the voters were persuaded to vote in favor because it included more money for equity and diversity education. It is hard to vote against such nice-sounding ideas, but if it means more money to promote the kind of thinking that labels people like Mr. Jennings a white supremacist, then maybe it’s time to rethink what we are teaching our students.

As I end my career as a high school history teacher, I am saddened for today’s young people, whose views of this country have been shaped by the noxious political environment of recent years. On the right, they’ve seen President Trump’s reckless tweets and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, but on the left, they’ve seen a summer of lawless rioting and been indoctrinated by many elements of the wider culture to see their country as racist to the core.

The problem with critical race theory is not as much that it is wrong as that it is distorted and de-contextualized, like seeing yourself in a funhouse mirror. Yes, that is you in the mirror, but the image is wildly distorted. Yes, we have a history of racism in our country and are living with the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, but as George Packer writes in the current issue of The Atlantic, “the most radical version of the narrative lashes together the oppression of all groups in an encompassing hell of white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, plutocracy, environmental destruction, and drones – America as a unitary malignant force.” Is that really us?

Packer goes on to note that this tortuous understanding of our country does not equip us to deal with real issues such as the complex sources of poverty, the role of personal agency and “the main source of violence in Black neighborhoods, which is young Black men, not police.” The intrusion of this narrative into American culture has been driven by the laudable and incontestable principle of inclusion, but it has “smuggled in more threatening features that have come to characterize identity politics and social justice: monolithic group thought, hostility to open debate and a taste for moral coercion.”

I was born in 1954, the year that Brown v. Board of Education ended racial segregation in public education. The more accurate and contextualized picture of race relations – and human rights generally – in the United States is one of extraordinary progress in opportunities for Blacks, women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ persons and immigrants. Ms. Sheikh-Yousef of all people ought to appreciate that. If Portland were under the thumb of real white supremacists, it’s hard to see how she could get elected to the Charter Commission.

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