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Fever Swamp

What’s Really Behind the GOP’s War on Critical Race Theory

It's not just about shutting Black people down. It's about protecting whiteness.

A U.S. map titled, "A Moral and Political Sketch of the United States of North America with a note on Negro Slavery, Junius Redivivus (1833) by Charles Louis Napoleon Achille Murat. Original from British Library. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel."
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Between bills targeting trans children, curbing voting rights, and criminalizing abortion, state-level Republicans are having the time of their lives. And somehow, on top of that heaping pile of bigotry, their plans to further marginalize people already on the margins has only gotten more senselessly cruel, with state legislatures jumping on the bandwagon to ban lessons about the existence of systemic racism from classrooms.

From Axios’ blog last week on the phenomenon of states forbidding educators from teaching these concepts, erroneously framed as “critical race theory”:

Republicans in at least nine states are moving to limit students’ exposure to critical race theory — a concept that links racial discrimination to the nation’s foundations and legal system. […]

Conservative activists are pressing for less talk about racism and more talk about patriotism.

Civil rights advocates and some educators say banning critical race theory from schools constrains academic freedom and suppresses the experiences of people of color.

Last Monday, Tennessee became the latest state to ban the teaching of these concepts in public schools. The text of the law is quite specific. The following ideas are now prohibited from being discussed (from the Tennessee General Assembly website, emphasis mine):

(1) One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex;

(2) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously;

(3) An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race or sex;

(4) An individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race or sex;

(5) An individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex;

(6) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex;

(7) A meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex;

(8) This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist;

(9) Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government;

(10) Promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people; or

(11) Ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges, or beliefs to a race or sex, or to an individual because of the individual’s race or sex.

Hoo-boy! At first glance, the list reads as if you could find it in a piece of anti-discrimination legislation. Sure, these things at the top of this list would be great to not have in classrooms. Yes, let’s not teach kids from marginalized backgrounds that they deserve to feel less than others! Let’s not allow teachers to pigeonhole students into stereotypes and treat them as such!

But once you consider the political context — that institutions everywhere made promises to “do better on race” last summer in an attempt to save face, and that Republicans hated the everliving shit out of that and have tried to ban racial analysis in any form ever since — and read further down the list, things start to take a turn. These terms state that teachers cannot introduce the simple concept that this country is built upon systems of racism and sexism.

Broadly, Tennessee’s law censors curriculum that is about systemic racism, or critical of American exceptionalism, and has ahistorical ramifications for the way that all concepts pertaining to race and gender and the existence of the U.S. are allowed to be taught in schools. There is only one true way to teach history, the law purports, which is to uncritically accept the U.S. as justified in everything it has done, and that the only lens through which to understand the country’s history of racism is through patriotism.

There are consequences at a localized level, too. When we’re talking about practical application in the classroom, the law doesn’t just ban curriculum. It bans the interrogation of whiteness as a construct that garners privilege and power. It makes sure that white kids don’t have to think about what it means for them to be white in the context of the classroom. It may not seem to matter — they’re kids, they should be allowed to be kids and not have to identify their racial privilege when they’re young, and what could they ever understand about systems of advantages and disadvantages at that age anyway? But consider that kids of color are rarely allowed to be shielded from the effects of racism.

The law does make exceptions. Sure, it allows for “impartial discussion of controversial aspects of history” (though it’s unclear to me how someone can teach accurate lessons about slavery, colonialism, and Native American genocide under the guise of “impartiality”), but it’s also heavily contradictory, allowing for the “impartial instruction on the historical oppression of a particular group of people based on race, ethnicity, class, nationality, religion, or geographic region.” So kids can continue learning about the through-line between slavery and the Civil Rights Movement, but not the through-line that connects that history to the present day. And schools that trip over that through-line could have their funding pulled.

As Axios’ article mentioned, Tennessee is just one of many states with an axe to grind regarding systemic racism curriculum. Idaho, Utah and Oklahoma have already passed similar laws or resolutions, while Republicans in New Hampshire, Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, Arizona, and Texas are working on measures of their own. Advocates of these bills, among them anti-anti-racism writer Christopher Rufo (whom you can watch Marc Lamont Hill talk circles around for 25 minutes, if you really want to understand what His Deal is), say they just want “impartiality” — again with that funny word! — in the classroom, and that systemic racism can be taught as one theory among many, but not as fact.

However, the reality is that these bills, like the Tennessee law, outright ban the teaching of these concepts in the classroom whatsoever. Not as part of a “balanced” curriculum, where, I don’t know, teachers also give equal credence to the idea that there are disproportionally more white people in positions of power than people of color in certain areas because, uhh, [insert mumbled racist rationale defending meritocracy here]. No, Idaho and Oklahoma‘s laws completely ban including concepts about systemic racism in school curriculum, as do bills from Texas and Rhode Island.

New Hampshire‘s is more lenient, saying the state can’t teach students “to adopt or believe” these concepts, and that students can’t be punished for resisting these concepts. And in lieu of a bill, the Utah State Legislature passed a resolution urging the state’s education board to make sure lessons on systemic racism aren’t included in curriculum.

Many of these bills also do not define what critical race theory is. That is an active decision by lawmakers, to cut out all race-based critical analysis regardless of what it’s called. But also it’s an easy way for “critical race theory” to become synonymous with anything the right doesn’t like about discussions about race (it’s also a strategy that Rufo has openly posted about).

Perhaps the most interesting about these bills is that several of these states or local school districts within them have stated that they aren’t even teaching anything remotely close to critical race theory.

“The state’s school board has found no evidence that CRT is being taught in Utah schools or is anywhere in the curriculum,” reported the Salt Lake Tribune. In Nashville, Amanda Kail, the president of the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association told WZTV Nashville, “It’s a little bit of a strawman argument … K-12—we don’t teach critical race theory particularly in our schools.” Kansas nor Missouri schools teach critical race theory, according to The Kansas City Star, though Topeka’s Kansas City Public Schools will soon start teaching curriculum based off the New York Time’s 1619 Project, a long-targeted enemy of former President Trump and other proponents of “patriotic education,” including the backers of these bills. But the school district has dismissed lawmakers concerns, telling the paper, “Unpacking the struggle and resistance to oppressive factors in our nation’s history can produce a more honest and empowering view of Latinx and African American individuals.”

That’s not to say that public education doesn’t need critical race theory, if not a complete overhaul to how racism and other forms of discrimination are taught. I know it does, because even nearly a decade removed from my own suburban Texas school district, I still remember the lessons that I later learned were sanitized to fit the mythos of America, ever justified in fulfilling its white supremacist destiny.

Among the most egregious omissions, I remember being taught about “Better Baby” and “Fitter Family” contests during our U.S. History unit on the American Eugenics Movement, with no mention of the country’s obsession with genetic superiority, and the thousands of legal forced sterilizations that women, disabled people, and people of color endured for decades. And while I was taught that the Civil War was primarily waged over slavery, Texas schools were still allowed to claim “states’ rights” was the main motivator of the war until two years ago. If including context from other diverse perspectives to these histories is the worst thing that can be done in public schools, I can only imagine how warped these lessons remain from my own time learning them.

It is all so very interesting. When Texas gets to dictate what the entire country’s schoolchildren learn (something I was also aghast to find out later in life), leaving out the most honest depictions of the harm that people who “settled” this nation inflicted along the way, that’s not being biased. That’s not teaching certain perspectives as fact, and excluding and dismissing others. That’s just history. But when public schools even dare to consider the legacy of white supremacy on abolition, and the suffrage movement, and the Civil Rights Movement, and 9/11? Well, that is nothing less than the demonization of America, and of the white people who exist in it today.

Of course, the people who claim to value debate and dialogue and critical thinking, who decry “cancel culture” and punishing people for diversity of thought, are the same ones championing the banishment of curriculum that even includes the mention of systemic racism as a concept. Once again, people in positions of power have the ability to make the rules and bend them to their will—though now, expressing that idea is almost too inflammatory for public schools, according to the very powerful people making these decisions. Imagine that.

But this is no surprise. “Critical race theory” and the study of systemic racism is just the latest addition to the laundry list of attacks that state Republicans have launched this year, on trans kids, on people getting abortions, on disenfranchised people looking to vote, on people just looking to protest the state-supported police violence. And they won’t stop until they feel like the threats on their ability to move through the world unchallenged are eliminated.