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Following a script being used in at least 16 other states, lawmakers in my home state of Wisconsin are taking aim at “critical race theory.” The proposed GOP legislation would ban anyone teaching in a public classroom, from kindergarten to college from promoting the notion that “any race is superior to another.”
Of course, actual critical race theory doesn’t do that. But this effort comes 200 years too late and is steeped in historical irony. For well over a century, that is exactly what was taught—that the so-called “white” race was superior to all others.
Education in the nineteenth century was awash with ideas about white superiority and inherent Black inferiority. Students in Professor Louis Agassiz’s science classes at Harvard University learned about “polygenesis” or the idea that different races have separate origins. Agassiz was literally teaching white supremacy: Black and indigenous people were classified as distinct, and therefore inferior, races whose human origin was different from Europeans.
Along with Agassiz, men like Samuel Morton and Josiah Nott advanced theories of racial difference and racial superiority that came to be regarded as the American School of Ethnology. Its methods were as specious as its conclusions. Morton’s compendious Crania Aegytiaca (1844) drew on a collection of some 600 skulls to adduce innate differences between Blacks and whites.
But Morton had no way of knowing whose fleshless skulls belonged to whom: he thus reasoned falsely that the skulls he measured as deficient must belong to African Americans. He then used those “findings” to promote theories of racial inferiority.
Herman Melville’s midcentury epic Moby-Dick (1851) undoes this fatuous logic when Ishmael apprises the noble forehead of a pagan harpooner and declares, “Queequeg was George Washington cannibalistically developed.” The infamous “Cetology” section from Moby-Dick—a chapter that is the scourge to undergraduate students everywhere—parodies theories that sought to sort human beings into different species according to race, an invidious endeavor later encapsulated in the title of Nott and George Gliddon’s Types of Mankind (1854).
Needless to say, contemporary GOP proposals to legislate critical race theory lack Melville’s irony. But such punitive measures are beset by a different irony. In the American nineteenth century, pedagogies of race that advanced the notion that one race was superior to another were ubiquitous. They stamped all facets of education from science to law to religion with patterns that coalesced in what Alexander Saxton memorably called “the rise and fall of the white republic” (1991).
Medical textbooks contributed to this story, inventing “drapetomania” as a pathological condition that afflicted only Black people. Its primary symptom—causing enslaved persons to run away from Southern bondage—seems preposterous today. This ailment was on the books until the first decades of the twentieth century, appearing as an entry in the “Practical Medical Dictionary” as late as 1914.
Attacks on “race theory” would have been better timed had they emerged to refute the crackpot notions of an earlier era that propped up white supremacy. In the 1850s, according to the race theory of the time, Black people were to blame for Adam and Eve getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden. A prominent Southern magazine proposed that the Hebrew word for “serpent” actually meant “black,” concluding that Eve was tempted by a Black gardener. By extension, all Black people were to be seen as bearing the guilt of this original trespass.
Had indefensible and quack theories about race come under fire back then, there would have been no shortage of targets. Today, however, the backlash against critical race theory is a non-issue, a controversy invented by conservatives seeking to open a new front in the culture wars in advance of the 2022 elections.
Like their colleagues elsewhere, lawmakers in Wisconsin are seeking to prohibit teaching that supposedly suggests individuals are to blame for past racial injustices. The template seeks to block material or instruction that teaches students that they “are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.”
A display of dubious valor, this effort is intended to protect white students from feeling guilty about historical wrongs such as the removal of Native Americans, slavery, or Japanese internment. Protecting individuals of a particular race or ethnicity from blame might have meant something in 1942 when 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were rounded up and placed in internment camps following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
But, today, it amounts only to a campaign to promote historical ignorance and suppress critical thinking about the past.
Russ Castronovo is the Dorothy Draheim Professor of American Studies and Tom Paine Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is also the the Director of the Center for the Humanities