Human Rights Column: Teachers in the Trenches—What’s Behind the Attack on Critical Race Theory?

November 6, 2021
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BLM Protest, November 2015. Photo Johnny Silvercloud. CC BY 2.0.

CRT is a curious target for legislators and school board members, if only because it is not taught at the K-12 level and only rarely to undergraduates. Today, it’s serving as a red herring to silence the discussion of race and racism across classrooms in the U.S.

In recent months, Republican legislatures in approximately thirty states have sprinted to pass legislation which seems intent on banning teachers from discussing race, racism, and what has been termed “divisive” concepts. Also forbidden: anything that makes (white) students feel “discomfort” or a “sense of responsibility” for the past. These efforts have been packaged as an opposition to “critical race theory” (CRT), an academic framework that views racism as ingrained in law and other modern institutions. But CRT is a red herring that functions as a catch-all term to include any consideration of race and racism (“multiculturalism,” “wokeism,” “identity politics,” “culturally responsive teaching“)—any hint that “racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society” or any attempt to offer an unembellished history of the United States.

CRT is a curious target for legislators and school board members, if only because it simply is not taught at the K-12 level and only rarely to undergraduates. It emerged in the legal studies field in the 1970s, spreading to other academic disciplines, providing a framework for understanding “the many ways that governmental entities and private interests have put racial ideologies into practice, as Jacqueline Jones put it. But as the increasing diversification of the U.S. population and the unprecedented calls for social justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 left the Right searching for a response, “critical race theory” was at once vague, all-encompassing and suggestively threatening. Fox News, which virtually ignored CRT through mid-2020, referenced it over 1,900 times between June and August 2021.

To understand how opposition to “critical race theory” became the target of state-level education legislation, we must consider the role that grievance-oriented, violent grassroots protest has come to play in rightwing tactics. Much as the Tea Party used townhall meetings to undermine the Affordable Care Act, the Right is now leveraging its opposition to “CRT” to organize at the local level, ensuring that the base remains ginned up and angry. In late September, the National School Boards Association noted the escalation of “[t]hreats of violence and acts of intimidation” directed at school officials across the country and pleaded with the Biden Administration to deploy “existing statutes, executive authority,” and “other extraordinary measures” to combat what it characterized as domestic terrorism. The bills speeding through state legislatures can tell us something about the way in which violence-prone, anti-democratic forces are (once again) gathering behind the flag of a whitewashed, nationalistic version of this country’s history.

In 1974, for example, disputes over the adoption of new literature textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, quickly turned violent. Opponents, labeling the new texts “anti-American,” shot up empty school buses and classrooms, bombed the school-board building, and threw rocks at parents who didn’t adhere to their boycott. While the new texts were ultimately adopted, the protest helped launch the modern homeschooling and Christian-school movements and, as Adam Laats explains, propelled the Heritage Foundation from its very modest beginnings into the vast conservative policy organization that is fueling today’s school board conflagrations. The same response—violence and a retreat from public schools—marked many white parents’ response to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Today’s attempts by state legislators to intervene in the classroom recalls the anti-Communism of the post-war period, attempts in the 1920s to ban the teaching of evolution, and the post-Reconstruction imposition of segregation in the nation’s schools. It’s no coincidence that the laws pouring out of statehouses look like each other. Most are written by the Right’s “bill-mills,” including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the America First Policy Institute, and the Alliance for Free Citizens. Fundamental to all of them is the attempt to reassert control: control over Black lives, control over the political process, and, at the level of schools, control over the discussion of race and racism in the classroom. Most bills include language aimed at discouraging or prohibiting teachers from making “race or gender salient in conversations about power and oppression.” Some states directly ban teaching the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a collection of essays examining the role of race and slavery in the country’s origins (Michigan and Missouri); some prohibit outside speakers from addressing these topics (Kansas). Some are preventing teachers from promoting social justice for a race, gender, or social class (Arkansas, South Dakota), while others sanction the use of specific materials and resources that foreground the struggles of marginalized groups (Missouri).

Most of the bills forbid the teaching of so-called “divisive concepts,” as first defined in a September 2020 executive order by then President Trump. These prohibit raising the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist, as well as touching on any subject that would cause an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” The legislation passed in Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas specifies that these ideas cannot be made “part of a course.” Arizona’s law would ban teachers from suggesting, among other things, that an individual by the virtue of their race or sex “bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of their race, ethnic group or sex.” According to it co-author, Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskego), the legislation which recently passed the Wisconsin State Assembly would ban such concepts as “Social Emotional Learning,” “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” culturally responsive teaching, anti-racism, conscious and unconscious bias, culturally responsive practices, diversity training, equity, microaggressions, multiculturalism, patriarchy, restorative justice, social justice, systemic racism, white privilege, white supremacy and “woke,” among others.

Truth be told, if legislators were really concerned that students not “feel discomfort” because of their race or sex, they would have sought means to protect Black, and other marginalized students in their schools long before. Rather, what the sprint to legislate the discussion of race has made clear is that these laws are part of the Right’s response—also highlighted by its voter suppression laws—to the rising movement for social justice building since the early 2010s and reaching an astonishing peak following Floyd’s murder. Whether or not the legislation passes or courts ultimately uphold their constitutionality, their purpose is to intimidate and, ultimately, silence. Teachers in Arizona, for example, face the suspension or revocation of their teaching certificate if they violate the law. “If you pass a bill that makes educators scared to talk about stuff, because you can potentially go after their license,” noted Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona’s School Board Association, “then they’re not going to walk up to that line. And that’s what the proponents of the bill actually want.” In Wisconsin, proponents of the pending legislation recommended that teachers be filmed or audio recorded so the content of their lessons could be reviewed in the “same way police body cameras are used.”

An essential part of the attempt to silence the discussion of race and racism in the U.S. is the demand that American history be represented as exemplary and unblemished. Teachers are forbidden from teaching that slavery is anything else than a “betrayal of America’s founding values” (Texas). A bill in Michigan prohibits the teaching of any theories deemed to be “anti-American.” Missouri bans materials from the [Howard] Zinn Education Project. The Heritage Foundation, a significant generator of these bills, insists that CRT “seeks to undermine the foundations of American society.” But “knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living [which] includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past,” as the American Historical Association recently argued, along with 147 organizations that oppose the imposition of gag rules in the nation’s classrooms.

At the present time, the courts, State Boards of Education, local school boards and teachers are sorting themselves on both sides of the legislation. Arizona’s Supreme Court will take up the constitutionality of that state’s measures in early October and many admit that in Arizona and elsewhere the stunning vagueness of the legislation will make it unenforceable. But crafting legislation to enhance learning and protect children was never the Republican legislators’ intention. Forbidding the study of race, as they are attempting, will not make racism and its legacies disappear. Events in the “real world” disclose a different reality. In the real world, superintendents and teachers have been harassed and fired for supporting anti-racist efforts in their schools, moderate school boards have been replaced by slates of “patriots,” and educators (and their families) have been threatened with physical harm.

These measures may keep the Republican base in a state of high dudgeon, but they won’t quash the demands of young people to learn—or Black people from demanding their rights. As Jania Hoover, a high school social studies teacher in Texas, wrote in July, “Young people want to understand the world around them, and it’s my job to do my absolute best to help them make sense of things, even if it’s just by providing them with knowledge of past events that created the inequalities they witness on a regular basis…I want kids to learn about these systems and work to change them.”

Steve Volk is Professor Emeritus at Oberlin College, where he taught Latin American history and museum studies. He writes about education and democracy at https://steven-volk.blog, where you can find a longer version of this column.

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