Publication Date

October 28, 2021

Perspectives Section

Letters to the Editor


  • United States


Research Methods

To the Editor:

In her September 2021 column, “Abstract and Ill Informed,” Jacqueline Jones misses the deep concern many historians have about the infiltration of critical race theory (CRT) into their craft. Rather than distinguish between facts and abstractions, the issue is better framed by looking beyond the use of a didactic tool set and into the study of history’s core purpose. We can all concede that institutional racism is an undeniable reality of the past, just as it is in the present and will be in the future. But beyond that reality, CRT takes history a critical step further. As a methodology, it proposes that the racist impact of a policy is prima facie evidence of an intent to perpetuate racism. In this framework, advances toward more enlightened outcomes are too easily distilled into one-dimensional struggles to overcome the racist institutions of the dominant race by the victims (and their “allies”) of minority races.

Such an approach risks taking any complex, multilayered historical subject and turning it into a perpetual, self-fulfilling blame machine. Institutions are the oppressors in history’s never-ending morality play, and members of minority groups are always its heroes. This replaces the core didactic purpose of exploring a multitude of historical narratives, requiring a supple focus on a potentially vast variety of societal and human causes and effects, with an inflexible diatribe against racist power structures. Not only is this simplistic; it is misleading and often causes entirely unwarranted self-reflection on an individual level (no, we are not all “racists” or “antiracists”). A simple truism will show why: The gradual abolition of slavery across the world in the 18th and 19th centuries cannot be attributed solely to how those acting on behalf of persecuted minorities finally managed to overcome their institutionalized oppressors. There were a host of complex factors spanning the evolving needs of modernity that cannot be woven snugly into a good-guys-versus-bad-guys narrative.

But if this is indeed how the AHA leadership believes the immutable “lessons of the past” should henceforth be framed—so that they are more easily learned in the present and applied in the future—it has fallen, like so many other institutions, into a calamitous groupthink culmination in its perception of its mission.


I am gratified that my column has stimulated a discussion of critical race theory. However, I must take issue with the statement that CRT “proposes that the racist impact of a policy is prima facie evidence of an intent to perpetuate racism.” As I pointed out in the column, racist practices can flow from all sorts of motives, including moneymaking and keeping one’s job.

David Witus
Mercer Island, Washington

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.