August 9, 2021

Race, History, Guilt and the Olympics: Real-World Experience in the Classroom

[Cross-posted from The Hill]

By Alan Brownstein

If one looks behind some of the criticism directed at the teaching of Critical Race Theory, it appears that there is a particular objection to the idea that white students should be taught that they bear guilt or responsibility for past and/or present racism in our society.

As a professor of constitutional law, I do not teach Critical Race Theory. Still, when I teach about the Equal Protection Clause, the issue of guilt and responsibility is unavoidable. My focus is not on white normative accountability — It is on American guilt and responsibility. And in beginning the discussion, I find it useful to talk at least initially about the Olympics.

My first question to students is whether they ever experience pride for some achievement they had no role in bringing about. I offer the success of USA athletes at the Olympic games as an example. Most students agree that they experience considerable pride in the effort and success of USA Olympic athletes even though they had nothing to do with these results. It seems entirely natural and reasonable for Americans to take pride in the achievements of other Americans.

My second question is this: If it is reasonable and acceptable to experience pride when individual Americans or our country does something praiseworthy, is it also reasonable and acceptable to experience shame or guilt when individual Americans or our country engages in shameful or blameworthy conduct?

A follow-up question extends the issue beyond pride or blame: I ask whether students have received significant benefits as a result of their living in the United States? Did students directly bear the costs incurred by earlier generations in providing the political freedoms and material advantages the students enjoy today? Most students agree that they are the blessed beneficiaries of the work and courage of their forebears. The follow-up is whether it is fair and just to expect the students to pay the debts incurred by prior generations to provide the political and material goods the students experience and value today.

In its simplest terms, we would find it entirely reasonable to expect Americans today to pay the principal and interest on bonds the government sold to finance the construction of public bridges and dams.

But not all debts are so easily identified or quantified.

Still, we can ask and open the issue for discussion whether current generations may be reasonably expected to take into account the harms America has inflicted on minorities, such as Blacks and Native Americans, in deciding public policy issues today. This accountability is not based on the students’ race, but rather on their national identity. This is American accountability, applicable to our society because we are — and are privileged to be — Americans.

The classroom discussion will move on to evaluate American decisions relating to race and the treatment of racial minorities. Typically, these issues are less controversial. While there may be debate about particular events or policies, there is usually a strong consensus that, historically, American conduct toward racial minorities has been blameworthy. The hard question raised by my earlier inquiries is what that realization of blameworthiness means for public policy and constitutional law decisions today.

Of course, not everyone will agree with the analogies suggested above between pride and shame or benefits and debts. There is a difference, though, between raising a difficult issue for students to confront and demanding that everyone agree to a particular response.

Nor do I think that presenting these issues in the way I have described isolates or stigmatizes more conservative students — at least that has not been my experience.

Several years ago, I was privileged to be invited to visit and teach Constitutional Law for a semester at the law school at Brigham Young University (BYU). BYU law students are smart, thoughtful, religious, and generally conservative. They did not find the way I conducted the discussion of equal protection issues to be insulting or indoctrination. Indeed, one of the most rewarding teaching evaluations I have ever received was written by a student in that class. As a religious school, BYU asks students to evaluate whether a professor’s class was spiritually strengthening. Because I am Jewish and the overwhelming majority of BYU students are Mormons, I was not sure what to expect from students in response to this question on the evaluation.

One student’s response described my presentation on equal protection issues this way: “His sincerity in fairly articulating the constitutional interests of racial minorities, women and LGBT individuals was a supreme example of what we would deem Christ-like. Seeing his reverence toward these issues and the real-world consequences for those most affected by them was more powerful than any explicit discussion of religion in the lectures could have been.”

I doubt I deserve such high praise. But I am confident that the anonymous student who wrote this evaluation was neither insulted nor indoctrinated by my teaching.