In school long ago, I learned little of racial problems. Until recently, few heard about the Tulsa pogrom. U.S. history was taught as a triumphal pageant of democracy. Most countries teach unblemished nationalistic histories to socialize children into loyalty.

But now we are going through a painful and oversimplified but overdue examination of the role of race in U.S. history. It brings nasty but often unspoken contestation and strongly influences current politics, splitting the country in two, especially in election years.

Some states want to outlaw schools teaching “critical race theory,” but the term became part of the culture wars, unclear and controversial. Liberals want schools to include discussion of persistent racist structures and psychology that need to be reformed. Trumpist Republicans want no discussion of race in schools because, they charge, it is inaccurate, unpatriotic and unfair to Whites.

Schools covered the Civil War not as a struggle over slavery but to hold the Union together. Some suggested that slavery would have faded away without a war. Intruding into this positive panorama were brief discussions of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the folk song “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd.” Kids probably learned more about racism outside of school than in it.

Slavery was far from liquidating itself; it kept spreading westward, including Texas, even though Mexico had outlawed it. Actually, slavery was a great money-maker for both cotton-plantation owners and Northern banks and brokers. Lehman Brothers began in 1850 in Montgomery, Alabama, before moving to New York City, where, overleveraged, they went bankrupt in 2008.

Critical legal theory began in the 1970s, when some law

professors found racism structured into the legal system to produce grossly unequal outcomes for Whites and Blacks. This got worse with the 1994 Crime Bill, backed by President Clinton and Senator Biden, who later expressed some regrets. By 2004, U.S. prisons held 2.4 million, disproportionately Black.

During the 1980s, historians, economists and sociologists enlarged legal theory into critical race theory that found continuity of racial mistreatment since the Civil War. The great Democratic liberals Woodrow Wilson, FDR and William Fulbright ignored the problem. Only Truman in 1948 tackled the issue. His desegregation of the armed forces sparked the Dixiecrats and began the South’s Republican takeover, a process completed in 1968.

In 2019, The New York Times ran its major “1619 Project,” in which some historians claimed that America has been structurally racist from the first arrival of African slaves four centuries earlier. Controversy flared; mainstream historians called the series more ideological than scholarly. Real complexities, they argued, defy simple reduction.

Around this same time, Black Lives Matter became a major movement, highlighting police abuses that had gone little publicized. Serious Black thinkers advance claims for reparations for the harm done over the decades. The tense centennial of the 1921 destruction of a prosperous Black section of Tulsa that killed nearly 300 raises questions of how Whites got title to formerly Black-owned land there. Any compensation due?

A racial reckoning underlies much of the extreme polarization of American politics. For Blacks, it is high time to set the record straight and get equal treatment in the economy, voting and laws. For some Whites, it is a Black uprising to grab “free stuff” that Marxist liberals are too eager to hand out. Trump cleverly harvested this White resentment and ordered critical race theory banned in schools. Racial fears continue as underlying election issues.

The Senate’s inability to commission a study of the January 6 Capitol invasion reveals how far and dangerous our polarization has become. Unattended, it will only get worse as America turns “majority minority” by midcentury. Gunnar Myrdal explained in 1944 why America’s race gap erupts periodically: The creedal ideal of equality clashes with invidious practice.

Senate Republicans claim that everything will come out in the trials of the more than 400 Capitol invaders charged. But they will plead down and leave their many cases disconnected, never producing a coherent overall picture. Best alternative: a House select committee to study the riot, with ample representation of Republican questioners and witnesses.

A ray of hope is in the thorough discrediting of Trump so that enough of his supporters fall away. Since the election, Republican identifiers have declined roughly from one-third of voters to one-fourth. A major Trump conviction — say, tax cheating or Russian connection — would cripple Republican fortunes and force a GOP reconstruction. I suspect that, although now marginalized, Rep. Cheney’s traditional conservatism will win back the party.

Republican candidates in contested states and districts could quickly discover the disutility of fealty to Trump. Some fanatics, to be sure, such as Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Georgia), will ride their deep-red districts back to the House next year. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, however, who patched up relations with Mar-a-Lago, after a five-day delay came out against Greene. I think we’ll see a Trump Jump.