The Origins of Critical Race Theory

Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Critical Race Theory (CRT). Then, references to CRT started to appear frequently in the news. There were, for example, reports coming out of Florida and Texas that CRT has been banned from public schools.

As a result, I have been puzzling over the meaning of “Critical Race Theory” and why it has become such a hot-button issue. One write-up I found to be very helpful is an article by Jelani Cobb in the September 20, 2021 issue of The New Yorker. In the print version, the title of the article is “The Limits of Liberalism” with a subtitle of “How Derrick Bell’s pioneering work gave rise to critical race theory” — in the online version (linked above) the article is dated September 13, and its title is “The Man Behind Critical Race Theory” with a subtitle “As an attorney, Derrick Bell worked on many civil-rights cases, but his doubts about their impact launched a groundbreaking school of thought.

In a recent conversation, my friend Joan asked me, in the context of CRT, what is the meaning of the word “woke”? I would say, as an extension of the awareness of racism and social injustice, it would include the ideas that these features are systemic and have been intractable. Not just the province of individual citizens, in other words.

I wondered about my own wokeness, and how it was that I had been unaware of CRT until recently. So I did a little (very little!) research on the topic, which included searching the Washington Post website for references. Sure enough, when I searched for “critical race theory” I was given 405 entries, the earliest one dating back to April 26, 2011. The striking pattern that emerged, however, confirmed that very few (only 46, or about 11%) of those references were more than seven months old.And most of those earlier articles were about Bell or other legal scholars, about free speech in academia, or about sensitivity training for police or private company employees. It has been only in recent months that CRT has become the straw figure of the self-styled conservative movement.

I could cynically point out that the very thing that “conservatives” are trying to “conserve” are the very social structures that CRT criticizes as being racist and unjust.

My take on things is that, until recently, the discussion of CRT had been largely confined to academia, where it was debated mostly in law schools. It seems too arcane a topic to have been taught, as some conservatives claim, in the public school system. My understanding is that Bell’s premise was that racism is nearly impossible to overcome, since it is baked into our legal system (and other institutions).

I am more optimistic than was Derrick Bell, as described by Cobb. I see a cohort of young people growing up in a more tolerant world, ignoring racial stereotypes when choosing their friends. I have been called “colorblind” in this regard (it was not meant as a compliment) and I can identify with the young people I know who are disregarding traditional categorization.

This does not mean that racism is going away anytime soon.

Bell saw in the [Bakke] decision the beginning of a new phase of challenges. Diversity is not the same as redress, he argued; it could provide the appearance of equality while leaving the underlying machinery of inequality untouched. He criticized the decision as evidence that the Court valorized a kind of default color blindness, as opposed to an intentional awareness of race and of the need to address historical wrongs. 

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/20/the-man-behind-critical-race-theory

Color blindness comes in many flavors; ranging from one extreme exemplified by my earlier naiveté to the other end of that spectrum: a deliberate attempt at whitewashing. Color blindness, as the phrase is used in the quotation just given, implies a denial of racism (as opposed to simple unawareness of racism and its consequences). One recent example is the law passed in Texas (cited above) that bans the teaching of racism. It is hard to get to the point of addressing historical wrongs if you deny they ever were perpetuated. Which, I suppose, is exactly the point, and simply reinforces Bell’s pessimism that racism is so thoroughly built into our culture that it can never be eradicated. Unlike Bell, as I mentioned, I hold out hope.

Whitewash: Definition

The word “whitewash” has many meanings, which can be summarized as:

  • Literal: a liquid composition for whitening a surface; to apply calcium carbonate ground into fine powder, washed, and used especially as a pigment
  • Figurative: an act or instance of glossing over or of exonerating OR a defeat in a contest in which the loser fails to score
  • Recent usage as racist language: to alter (something) in a way that favors, features, or caters to white people

Until quite recently, despite a not uncommon misunderstanding, this word did not have any racist connotations. To whitewash a story was to cover up the truth (to “clean the dirt”).

Now, in some cases, the word is, unfortunately, used to perpetuate the racist mythology that the human race can be broken down into sub-races. Many (if not most) people think they can tell if a person is “white” or “colored” but these categories are completely subjective, and have no scientific basis.

:

Over the Hill: Definition

In my studies of the Western Abenaki dialect of the Algonkian language, I came across a memorable word that I can use to describe myself (and my cohort of poker players).

Pôzidôkiwi

pronounced ~ pon-zee-DON-kee-wee

It means “over the hill” — and the “wi” ending identifies its use as an adverb.

Tôni alosaan?

Nd’elosa pôzidôkiwi.

Literally translated, this means “To where are you walking? I am walking over the hill” — but the root alosa is more generally taken to mean “going to” so a contemporary translation would be “Where are you going? I’m going over the hill.”

In my understanding of Algonkian culture, personal names are fluid. A name given to an individual at birth may have some significance relating to the circumstances of their arrival, or their family connections, or may, I suppose, be just a name. But, during the course of their lives, people could take on (or be given) different names, to reflect their achievements or their character traits.

This strikes me as being similar to the practice of awarding “Trail Names” to through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail (AT). Such hikers cover long stretches of the AT in a single season, some of them hiking the entire Trail from Georgia to Maine. Along the way, people encounter each other many times and develop friendships; which may lead to the affectionate nicknames known as Trail Names. [The word “nickname” btw comes from the Middle English “an eke name” meaning “an additional name”]

In the Colonial culture, our “real” names are fixed at birth (although they may later be changed by some legal procedure). People may use pseudonyms as long as they are not used for the purpose of deception or fraud. My father, for example, wrote poetry under the nom de plume Gray Fox, and his family called him “Sonny” to distinguish him from his father, since they shared the same name. As a young lad, I asked him, “Dad, why do they call you Sonny?” and he said, without hesitation, “Because I’m so bright!”

Also, when I was young, like most youngsters, I imagine, I asked my mother why she named me “Michael” — she told me she had named me after her favorite dog, a German Shepherd. I thought that was pretty cool; I had never heard of anyone being named after a dog — usually it was a favorite uncle or other family member (my youngest sibling was named Sarah because — besides it being a pretty name — there are so many Sarahs in my family tree).

One day, when I was probably around 11 years old, a friend was visiting, and asked me why I was named Michael. I told him what my mother had said, and she overheard my explanation. “Who told you that?” she wanted to know. “You did!” I asserted. “Well, that’s not true,” she told us, “I never had a dog named Michael!” So I asked, “Then why did you name me Michael?” and she responded, “Because I just liked the name.” Of course, so did lots of other people, and for many years Michael was the most popular boy’s name in this country. So much for my pride in being named for a dog.

Years later, after my mother had gone blind because of her diabetes, my brother gave me a photo album he had found among the things she would no longer be able to use. There were some pictures of me as a young child, and as I was flipping through the pages, I came upon a photo of a handsome German Shepherd in profile. Underneath the picture was written simply “Michael” — so now I knew that the earlier story was true, and my mother had somehow forgotten about her dog.

Despite the English practice of using nicknames, the early colonists seemed to be confused by the Native naming practices. Perhaps it was because the natives didn’t use family names, and individuals might have more than one name in concurrent use. Also, except for missionaries and teachers, colonists usually didn’t bother to learn the native language. So they had trouble understanding (and even pronouncing) the native names. To accommodate this ignorance, natives often added a Christian name to the beginning of theirs. [Some examples of the mixed names being used in the Colonial era are given in this piece about King Solomon (and others). As an aside, this past summer I helped with an excavation at the property shown on the map and evidence was found of a dwelling; possibly King Solomon’s longhouse.]

For most of the time I have been studying Abenaki, I have been the only Michael in the class. This moon (Skamonkas, Corn Maker Moon), there is another Michael, and I feel a need to have a distinctive moniker. I’ve decided that it would be suitable to call myself Missal Pôzidôkiwi. Abenaki orthography was heavily influenced by early efforts of French Jesuit missionaries to learn and record the language. There are many loan words that come from the French, such as adio. Abenaki did not have a word for goodbye (God be with ye) and the French adieu (“to God” — similar to adios in Spanish) was coopted. Missal probably comes from Michel, the French version of Michael.

Although I think pôzidôkiwi suits me, I reserve the right to take on other names in the future. One immodest moniker might be masalawigha = mark or write a lot; a prolific writer or artist.

“Over the hill” obviously has a literal meaning, and I’m sure that’s how it is used in Abenaki, but in English it has taken on a figurative meaning.

Definition of over-the-hill
1: past one’s prime
2: advanced in age

Synonyms & Antonyms for over-the-hill

Synonyms
aged, aging (or ageing), ancient, elderly, geriatric, long-lived, old, older, senescent, senior, unyoung

Antonyms
young, youthful

Interestingly, this phrase was first recorded in the year of my birth. Now that I am no longer youthful (although I still feel pretty spry), I can claim to be over the hill.

Ni ga, Missal Pôzidôkiwi nia

Adio

Woke: Definition

Woke was officially added into the Oxford English Dictionary as an adjective in June 2017.

The dictionary defines it as “originally: well-informed, up-to-date. Now chiefly: alert to racial or social discrimination and injustice”.

The Urban Dictionary, which published its original definition two years prior to the official dictionary, defines it as “being woke means being aware… knowing what’s going on in the community (related to racism and social injustice)”.

In other words, it means to be awake to sensitive social issues, such as racism.

https://inews.co.uk/news/uk/woke-what-mean-meaning-origins-term-definition-culture-387962

See the link above for an expanded definition and explanation provided by the Oxford English Dictionary.

There is also more information in the article cited as the source of this quotation.

The Association News

Here is a collection of historical trivia, collected as Volume XI Number 5 of The General Daniel Davidson Bidwell Memorial Association, dated October 1, 1935.

At the end of page 4 (of 4) in the images below there is an explanation of the Association. There is also a pdf version filed here.

I am a Bidwell, by way of my father’s mother, whose birth name was Grace Josephine Bidwell. I found this document, loose, inside a scrapbook compiled by (or more likely for) my (Grand) Aunt Belle, my grandmother’s sister, Isabella Jane Bidwell Weiss.

More on General Bidwell, including a link to a description of the Cedar Creek battle, can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_D._Bidwell

Indigenous Resilience

In my studies of local indigenous culture, I have noticed a growing interest in this area among the general public. I’m not entirely sure how to explain this, but it’s a good thing, in my view. I think we are all aware that many vital systems are broken, and we search for new ways of thinking. Climate change and social injustice are high on the list of concerns.

It turns out that many of the “new” ways of thinking have actually been around for millennia. As I have struggled to comprehend a radically new (to me) way of viewing and processing the world, as a student of the Western Abenaki dialect of the Algonkian language, I have witnessed first-hand a resurgence of efforts to revitalize an ancient culture.

It turns out that this age-old culture never went away, despite the best efforts of the colonial oppressors to suppress it. The “Opening Remarks” of the Fall 2021 Sierra magazine contain a nice summary of the current relevance of indigenous culture in our country.

I was particularly struck by the quotation given at the end of the editorial:

They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.

https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2021-4-fall/editor-s-desk/seeds-resistance

High Points in New England

The New England Historical Society (NEHS) has provided a somewhat light-hearted survey of the highest points in each of the New England states.

The entry for Massachusetts, however, contains at least a couple of errors.

One has to do with Herman Melville:

The snow-covered mountain reminded Herman Melville of a great white sperm whale, which he named Moby Dick in his masterpiece.

The story of Moby Dick was based on an actual event known to Melville (as well as his own whaling experience). It is true that he could see Mount Greylock from his home in Pittsfield, where he wrote the book, and it may have even looked to him like a whale, but the mountain did not inspire the story.

Also, their timeline seems to me to be not quite right:

The mountain may have been named after an Indian chief, Gray Lock, who raided English settlements in Vermont and western Massachusetts during the last French and Indian war. Or it may have been named for the gray clouds that hover at its summit.

The mountain was almost certainly named after Gray Lock (or Grey Lock, or other spellings), which was the English nickname for a chieftain (war sachem)* who eluded capture for many years, and was suspected of hiding out on the mountain. Some say he is still there, waiting for the day when he can retake the land stolen from his people by the European colonists.

* Wawanolewat [Graylock, one who habitually loses the others, fools them]

Wawanolewat was the Abenaki name of the Missisquoi chief known as Chief Greylock in English. “Wawanolewat” does not actually mean “Greylock” in Abenaki– that may have been his father’s name, or it may have been a nickname of his. The actual meaning of “Wawanolewat” is “fools the enemy.”

http://www.native-languages.org/definitions/wawanolewat.htm

Caveat: I have no formal training in history, so I am reporting here my own impressions from what I’ve read here and there. My understanding is the Greylock was active beginning in the time of King Philip’s War (1675-6) and continued his resistance long after that war ended. There was also a conflict called (along with other names) Grey Lock’s War (1724-6). The French and Indian War referred to in the quotation above took place in 1756-63, at which time Greylock would have had to have been over 100 years old. (Which would not be a problem if he is still alive!)

The Abenaki Indians were concerned with their own interests rather then those of the French. They were not mere pawns of the French, but allied themselves with the French because they viewed them as the lesser of two evils. They wanted to protect their way of life and prevent the English from encroaching on to their land.

There is a fairly detailed biography of Gray Lock to be found here:

GRAY LOCK (La Tête Blanche, The Whitehead, Wawenorrawot, Wewonorawed, Wawanolewat), an Indian chief at Missisquoi (near Swanton, Vt.); apparently fl. 1675-1740.

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gray_lock_3E.html

In any case, the list by the NEHS is a useful catalog; I’ve been to 4 of the 6, and have no plans to visit the other 2. I won’t go to Maine because (among other things) it is the site of the recent tragic death of my good friend Don MacGillis. And Rhode Island just doesn’t seem worth the trouble!

True Story: The Lazarus File

Here’s a rather offbeat entry. I happened to come across an old (June 2011) issue of The Atlantic, and this article caught my eye.

It is an intriguing tale of a 1986 murder case that gone “cold” in the LAPD, only to be revived after DNA evidence became a thing.

The piece is well-written, and reads like a detective story (which it was). As of the writing, 10 years ago, the case had not come to a conclusive ending, so my curiosity got the better of me, and I did the usual web search.

Here is the story of how it ended.

Populating the Americas

Scientific American published an important article in the May 2021 issue (pages 26-33) entitled “Journey into the Americas: Genetic and archaeological discoveries tell a new story about how the continents were populated” — although not much of the story is “new” to those of us who have been following developments in academic research.

See the Addendum at the end of this post for links to resources such as books, other posts, and articles that contain additional information on the topics covered here.

Meanwhile, here are some thoughts on the points made in the article. The most important is that the story is complex. What follows here is a mixture of what was in the article (which you can read for yourself) and my own conjectures, based on reading I have done elsewhere.

When I was young, I learned the prevailing (and perhaps the only) theory; that people had migrated from Asia across Beringia — the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska. While this was probably true, it was only the final installment in a much longer story of migration, mostly by other means.

The people who traversed Beringia were able to do so for only a relatively short period of time, after the LGM* — a period in which the oceans were low enough to expose Beringia, but before the ice sheets had retreated to their present positions. The ice would have melted just enough to expose a travel route from Beringia down into what is now western Canada, but not so much as to cause the sea levels to rise and submerge that land bridge from Asia.

* LGM Definition:

a global climatic event between 26,000 and 20,000 years ago known as the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM)

page 28

In the image above, you can see the thin blue line that defines the location of a gap that was about to open between the two major North American ice sheets. As the ice retreated, this corridor opened up enough to allow plants, animals, and humans to migrate south from Beringia. Notice that the area around where now are the Great Lakes was still under the ice sheet at the start of that era.

Before that time of melting, people would not have traveled by land, since it was covered by ice, making passage treacherous, and those who set out without adequate provisioning would have perished. When the people who traversed this new passageway arrived in southern Canada, they were between the two large ice sheets shown, to their west and to their east, and they would have found the land to the south of them was already occupied by earlier arrivals.

This map of the Algic language group leads me to speculate that the peoples who arrived via this newly-created land corridor spread out and occupied land that was becoming habitable as the ice began to vanish. So the story of people arriving over the Beringia land bridge is likely an accurate one, though it happened fairly late in the game (maybe around 15,000 years ago), and much (if not most) of the Americas was already populated by earlier arrivals.

The SciAm article mentions the origin stories of indigenous people:

Indigenous peoples have numerous oral histories of their origins. Passed down from one generation to the next, such traditional knowledge conveys important lessons about the emergence of each group’s identity as a people and their relationship with their lands and nonhuman relatives. Some of
these histories include migration from another place as part of their origins; others do not

page 28

The original occupants of the land where I now live, in western Massachusetts, were the Muhheconneok, or Mohicans. Hendrick Aupaumut was born in Stockbridge, in 1756, the son of a Sachem; he was destined to become one of the most important figures in the post-Colonial history of the Stockbridge Indians (a group that is an amalgam of people from various Nations in the Northeast that came together in Stockbridge, in the homelands of the Mohicans).

Aupaumut was highly educated, and besides being a prolific writer, he served as a diplomat for the tribe in negotiations with the federal government, as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community (as they are now known) were displaced from one location after another, until they ended up in Wisconsin. Aupaumut was with the tribe during that entire journey.

One of Aupaumut’s projects was to record the oral history of his people, since he knew it was in danger of fading away as the tribe dwindled in numbers and the exigencies of their dislocations threatened to upset the age-old traditions of his people. Reproduced below is a small section of his writing, in which he records (toward the end of this excerpt) part of the origin story of the Muhheconneok. This account, it seems to me, is consistent with the Beringia story.

http://www.mfw.us/blog/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Title-Page.jpg

… genetic findings, along with recent archaeological discoveries, have shown that the process of populating the Americas was far more complex than previously understood. Significantly, we now know that multiple ancient populations contributed to the ancestry of Indigenous peoples, not just one.

page 28

This quotation is from the opening section of the SciAm piece. The author of the article thus quickly dismisses the idea of a single origin. The scenario that I described above is not dealt with in detail. The rest of the article presents (and, in some cases, rejects) various scenarios that might explain how people had arrived prior to the opening of the Beringia land bridge.

Among the three major “Dispersal Scenarios” the article highlights, is (1) “A Late Peopling” along the lines I have already described, using the Ice-Free Corridor. Scenario (3) is “An Extremely Early Peopling” to explain archaeological findings that appear to place humans in the Americas prior to the LGM. This idea is given short shrift; “Most scholars reject this claim.”

That leaves Scenario (2) “An Early Coastal Peopling” as the most likely explanation of how humans arrived in the Americas before the ice-free land corridor became available. Although the term is not used in this article, this scenario has become known as the “Kelp Highway Theory” in other writings.

The Kelp Highway was an ecosystem that extended along the coastal waters of East Asia, southern Beringia, and the western coast of the Americas. Traveling by boat, people could have harvested food from the ocean until they reached ice-free coastal areas south of the glaciers in North America.

One important contribution (to my knowledge, anyway) made by the article is information on the Asian origins of the first peoples to arrive in the Americas. The author describes the merging of two groups, one from East Asia and one from Siberia, as human populations expanded eastward.

The Ancient North Siberians spread throughout northern and central Siberia. Remains of a child who lived at a site known as Mal’ta document their presence in south-central Siberia 24,000 years ago, during the Upper Paleolithic period. DNA recovered from these remains shows that many geographically dispersed populations, including present-day West Eurasians (a group that encompasses Europeans) and the First Peoples of the Americas, have ancestry from the Ancient North Siberians.

page 30

This intriguing tidbit touches on another theme (about which I know very little). Various scholars (linguists and anthropologists) have noted similarities between the original American languages and cultures and those found in isolated places in Asia and Europe. It may be that as the Siberian people were losing habitable land to the advancing ice sheets, they dispersed both east and west, carrying with them their culture and language.

One other conclusion in the article is worth mentioning: there is no solid evidence, in either DNA analyses or archaeological findings, to support the speculation that people might have arrived in the Americas from Europe.

All in all, the SciAm article provides an excellent summary of current scholarly/scientific thinking. As the author concludes:

Scientists working within this field have learned to be comfortable with ambiguity and accept that our models are provisional, subject to revision in light of changing evidence. With new tools for DNA analysis and new questions to ask of the data, the future is exciting for studies of the First Peoples

page 33

ADDENDUM: links to resources

Freedom of the Will: Reason, Dualism, and Choice

My title here, as you might surmise, is, in part, a nod toward my hometown preacher, Jonathan Edwards, who thought and wrote about the issues mentioned, nearly 300 years ago (in 1754).

An essay in The Atlantic issue of March 2014 by Paul Bloom has a more modern view, and also reveals that the controversies surrounding these issues have not been satisfactorily resolved.

I found the essay to be a fair treatment of Blooms’s own work and the opinions of others, with many citations of views that are contrary to his.

I don’t have the expertise to add much, so I’ll simply report on what I have learned, or at least my reactions, from reading Bloom’s piece.

My first takeaway relates to the issue of modern brain science discovering that many decisions that people report that they are making (exercising their free will) have actually been presaged in the brain, suggesting that, in reality, we have no free will (at least over some things), but are simply reporting on decisions that our brain has made for us.

I think this is an overly aggressive and somewhat narrow view of the processing involved. I question, for example, the brainscan studies that purport to measure the sequence of events; they seem to rely on self-reporting, which is problematic.

Building on that, and perhaps of much more consequence, is my second reaction. An idea that Bloom hints at (though I think does not fully articulate) is that our choice (free will) is predicated on a large database of experience.

What this means, in practical terms, it seems to me, is that our actions at any moment in time will reflect not just a split-second decision, but a culmination of a long process (over our lifetimes) of values and beliefs that we have developed, based on our experiences.

Thus, for example, when we decide whether or not to have a cookie or a dish of ice cream, our brain may appear to make that decision prior to our conscious knowledge of the outcome, but the brain has been cued up for this by our prior beliefs about if and when, and under what circumstances, the action in question is good or bad for us.

Of more pragmatic significance, perhaps, are those decisions we make (or at least think we make) in response to warnings from the limbic part of our brain. In evolutionary terms, this warning system far predates the advent of humans. I see it in my horses, for example, when we are out riding and they see something novel; an object that has been moved to a new location, or one they’ve not seen before. They visibly react with caution, sometimes even with fear.

So, too, we humans react, when we encounter something or someone strange to us. As self-aware individuals, though, we have the ability to override our limbic warning system. The failure to do so, in fact, may be the root of all prejudice. We can evaluate a situation based on its own merits, in light of our experience and beliefs, and come to a decision about how to act.

Yes, I strongly believe that we, as individuals, have Freedom of Will, and that we can improve our decision-making as we acquire knowledge and wisdom. A civilized society is enhanced when its members exercise their ability to make decisions based on such learning.