Ted Cruz questioned Ketanji Brown Jackson during her hearing on several black children’s books

Everyone expected Ketanji Brown Jackson to face tough questions during the Senate confirmation hearing on her Supreme Court nomination.

No one expected these short and bizarre questions to focus on a picture book.

For that instructive surprise, we have Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to thank, who proved Tuesday that his wisdom as a Senator is matched only by his judgment as a book critic.

Ted Cruz told Ketanji Brown Jackson that Bushrod Washington was not “controversial.” He was an enslaver.

While questioning the judge about her eligibility for a seat on the Supreme Court, Cruz reached out to Georgetown Day School, a swanky Washington-area private school where Jackson serves as a trustee. It sounds like a hotbed of black Marxist indoctrination from Cruz’s description, but fortunately, Georgetown Day costs up to $46,000 a year, leaving most children at little risk of falling under anti-capitalist influence. Still, Cruz was alarmed.

“If you look at the Georgetown Day School curriculum, it’s packed and crammed with critical race theory,” the senator claimed, “literally stacks and stacks of books.”

To demonstrate the size of this Borgesian Library of Babel, Cruz reached under his desk and heaved up a tower four small books.

But the “stunning” title he particularly highlighted was a 2020 picture book called Antiracist Baby, written by Ibram X. Kendi and illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky.

Profile: The anti-racist revelations of Ibram X. Kendi

As the senator struck a patient tone that vacillated between disgust and disbelief, an aide showed large, oversized images of the pages as if they were frames from the Zapruder film.

Cruz, lead writer for White Outrage Theater, intoned, “Part of the book says, ‘Babies are taught to be racist or anti-racist—there is no such thing as neutrality.’ Another part of the book: they recommend that babies ‘confess when they are racist’.”

Noting that “Antiracist Baby” is taught to children between the ages of 4 and 7, Cruz Jackson asked, “Do you agree with this book that teaches children that babies are racist?”

Jackson sighed, “Senator. . .” and then she stopped. She paused for a long time — perhaps long enough for millions of black Americans to remember the last time a hypocritical white man attempted to dismiss, devalue, or deny the complexities of systemic racism.

“I don’t think a kid should be made to feel like they’re racist,” Jackson said, “or like they’re unappreciated or less than, as a victim, as an oppressor — I don’t believe in any of that.”

Senators often complain that they have to vote on legislation that runs to thousands of pages, bills so long they can’t possibly read them all. “Antiracist Baby” is only 24 pages long, yet Cruz sounded like he didn’t make it to the note to parents and carers at the end. That’s where Cruz would have discovered Kendi’s perfectly reasonable claim that humans aren’t born Racist; you to learn racist attitudes from the society around them – and much sooner than most of us care to admit. “It is our responsibility to counter these messages,” writes Kendi, and not to be so ashamed of racism that we ignore it. In addition, he further recommends that we “help children understand that racist politics is the problem, not people.”

But Cruz wasn’t done misinterpreting children’s books for polemic effect. While he continued to urge Jackson to say that critical race theory is taught at Georgetown Day School – as if that had any relevance to her work on the Supreme Court – he turned his attention to a book entitled Stamped (for Kids).

Cruz claimed that “Stamped (for Kids)” was also by Kendi, but that elision was typical of the senator’s method.

Background: In 2016, Kendi published a great book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. In 2020, Kendi and Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young Adults at the Library of Congress, released a “remix” of the book for readers ages 12 and up. Influenced by Reynolds’ humorous, lively voice, it is a phenomenally engaging, entertaining and thought-provoking work of cultural and historical analysis for young people. And last year, Sonja Cherry-Paul released Stamped (For Kids), a chapter book adaptation for elementary school kids, with illustrations by Rachelle Baker.

Review: “Shaped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America”

Cruz didn’t mention the award-winning adult version or the widely acclaimed YA version, but he did say he managed to read “the entirety” of the children’s edition. Like many of his fans, he called it “an amazing book.” But of course he didn’t mean that as a compliment.

Opening “Stamped (for Kids),” the senator turned to Jackson and said, “On page 33 the question is asked: Can we send white people back to Europe? That’s what 8- and 9-year-olds get.”

This is a gross mischaracterization of what “Stamped” actually says. Cruz employs the same dubious method employed by book ban advocates across the country: find a suspicious-sounding sentence, distort or omit its context, and then condemn the book and anyone who endorses it.

The page Cruz referred to in “Stamped (for Kids)” does not suggest that whites should be sent back to Europe. Instead, this phrase appears in a discussion of Thomas Jefferson’s contradictory stance on slavery. The authors rightly state that “an idea thrown around by white assimilationists was that blacks should ‘go back’ to Africa and the Caribbean. But blacks didn’t want to “go back” to a place many had never known. Their ancestors had been captured from Africa and brought to North America where generations of black people were born. They had built America as enslaved people and wanted what was theirs. Freedom in the land they had built.”

In a side note, the authors write, “Imagine what Native Americans and blacks must have wished for their white oppressors: Can we send whites ‘back’ to Europe?”

It is a passage steeped in the authors’ empathy, wit and historical insight. But those qualities were lost to Cruz when he stormed ahead with his misrepresentation, twisting a crude comment thrown at black Americans into an imaginary insult against whites.

For her part, Jackson would not be drawn into the ancient senator’s trap.

“I have not reviewed any of these books, any of these ideas,” she replied with the patience of Job. “They do not appear in my work as a judge, which I would like to respectfully address here.”

On his next vacation, the Texas senator might want to skip Cancun and sit in on the fifth graders at Georgetown Day School. If he could listen for a moment, he might learn something.

Ron Charles writes about books for the Washington Post.

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