Buchenwald And Critical Race Theory

Santa Fe

A few years ago, during a trip to Europe, my wife and I visited the infamous Buchenwald Nazi concentration camp/now memorial in Eastern Germany.  We arrived soon after the site opened one weekday morning, when there were few vehicles in the parking lot.  We walked around the extensive grounds all morning, coming back to the information center and museum close to noon.  We saw then many buses parked in the parking lot. I assumed they were tourist buses.  I was wrong; they were school buses.  Entering the museum, we found it full of German middle school children.  While viewing the exhibit cases filled with explicit photos and artifacts that graphically depicted the horror of the holocaust, we also were very interested in observing the reactions of the school children.  A schoolgirl, perhaps 12 or 13, stood nearby looking at a shelf that contained photos of piles of naked, emaciated corpses and a bar of soap made in part from human fat obtained from murdered prisoners, I overheard her exclaim in German, “How horrible!”  My wife and I came away feeling admiration for the country’s honest and forthright attitude towards confronting this despicable time in its history.  Rather than sweeping under the rug the Nazi’s genocidal mass murder of Jews and other people deemed “undesirable,” the Germans displayed it openly so that the atrocity wouldn’t be forgotten, in the hope that continuing awareness would prevent something like that from ever happening again.  I later learned that to achieve that aim, the German government had made awareness of the holocaust, including mandatory visits to holocaust sites, an important part of the formal education of their children,.  

Contrast that with the radical right attack in this country being currently waged on the teaching of “critical race theory” in schools and other instructional venues. The term “critical race theory” has been used mostly by the far right to malign what it characterizes as a deliberate attempt to brand all white Americans as racist and to make them feel guilty about the country’s racist past.  According to a recently updated (January 31, 2022) Education Week article, since January 2021, legislation has been introduced or administrative rules proposed in 36 states aimed at restricting the teaching of “critical race theory” or limiting how teachers can discuss racism, sexism or other topics that may make some people “feel uncomfortable” about themselves.  And 14 states have already imposed these bans and restrictions.  One such bill sponsored by five white Republican New Mexico legislators is being considered in the 2022 legislative session: it is House Bill 91, short titled “Prohibit Critical Race Theory Teaching”.  This bill is so broad and vague that it arguably could be used to prohibit teaching about the general subject of slavery, the Civil War, the Reconstruction Era and the civil rights movement.

This effort to restrict knowledge, thought and personal freedom is an unfortunate, misinformed, knee jerk reaction to a nonexistent problem. Critical race theory is not at all what these measures and their promoters portray it to be.  In fact, the term refers to an independent, objective course of inquiry and study–the raising of questions and evaluation of information about our institutions, laws and practices.  It is very much akin to and intertwined with postcolonialism, an intellectual course of study that analyzes the continuing effects of the colonial past of many countries and regions in the world today.  The true aim of critical race theory is to try to understand why, after the spate of civil rights and anti-discrimination laws that have been passed in this country, racism and racial inequality continue to persist.  It is not a “blame game” but rather a problem-solving endeavor.  

I suspect and hope that most of the same people so opposed to critical race theory would be appalled if they were told that the German government had reversed its policy and was currently considering banning the teaching of the holocaust so that modern Germans wouldn’t “feel bad about themselves.”  Back to what I observed of the German middle school student in the Buchenwald memorial museum: in her facial expressions and exclamation I saw no feelings of personal guilt or discomfort, but, rather appropriately, shock and revulsion.  She didn’t appear to connect herself to the heinous past acts of the Nazi regime.  Instead, she showed she was repulsed by it.  I think that New Mexico schoolchildren of the same age would not blame themselves for the past or present acts of racial injustice of others or the racial inequality embedded in some of our institutions, laws and practices, the creation of which they had nothing to do with.  Instead, I would hope a better understanding of these injustices would instill in them the desire to help eliminate them.  If we deliberately prevent our children from learning about the racial inequalities that persist in this country, they and we will never make it a better, fairer place to live for all in the future.

Call and/or write your state representative and urge them vote against HB 91. 

Some Resources 

“Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack” (2021, June 11/updated 2022, January 31). Education Week. http://www.edweek.org/leadership/map-where-critical-race-theory-is-under-attack/2021/06

“CRT does not attribute racism to white people as individuals or even to entire groups of people. Simply put, critical race theory states that U.S. social institutions (e.g., the criminal justice system, education system, labor market, housing market, and healthcare system) are laced with racism embedded in laws, regulations, rules, and procedures that lead to differential outcomes by race. Sociologists and other scholars have long noted that racism can exist without racists. However, many Americans are not able to separate their individual identity as an American from the social institutions that govern us—these people perceive themselves as the system. 

“America’s racist past but have bought into the false narrative that the U.S. is now an equitable democracy. They are simply unwilling to remove the blind spot obscuring the fact that America is still not great for everyone.

Scholars and activists who discuss CRT are not arguing that white people living now are to blame for what people did in the past. They are saying that white people living now have a moral responsibility to do something about how racism still impacts all of our lives today. Policies attempting to suffocate this much-needed national conversation are an obstacle to the pursuit of an equitable democracy. Supporters of CRT bans often quote Martin Luther King Jr’s proclamation that individuals should be viewed by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin, ignoring the context of the quote and the true meaning behind it.” 

“Why are states attacking critical race theory? Rashawn Ray and Alexandra Gibbons, Brookings Institution (November 2021)


“Bans on Critical Race Theory Threaten Free Speech, Advocacy Group Says”, Jennifer Scheussler, New York Times Nov. 9, 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/08/arts/critical-race-theory-bans.html