The Christian right has always fought to censor facts which clash with their view of the world. They want only one viewpoint to be heard – theirs – and they want to silence scientific knowledge that contradicts their beliefs, as well as multicultural perspectives which teach that there’s more than one way to view the world. Public schools provide both, and for that reason the right wing has always regarded them with suspicion at best, open hostility at worst.
Religious groups trying to outlaw the teaching of evolution, or to require “equal time” for nonscientific alternatives, is a long-running front in the culture war. Comprehensive sex education is another of their perennial targets, like the time when white evangelical Christians rioted violently over textbooks that supposedly contained indecent facts.
Now the right has a new obsession. In the past few weeks, a rash of red states have passed laws which ban public schools and colleges from teaching something they call “critical race theory”. Here’s a sampling.
After hours of debate and public comment Thursday, the Florida State Board of Education unanimously approved the amendment banning critical race theory. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who appointed much of the board, spoke ahead of the meeting, saying critical race theory would teach children “the country is rotten and that our institutions are illegitimate.”
Gov. Greg Abbott has signed the controversial bill that prescribes how Texas teachers can talk about current events and America’s history of racism in the classroom, according to Texas Legislature Online. His signature makes Texas one of a handful of states across the country that have passed such legislation, which aims to ban the teaching of “critical race theory” in K-12 public school classrooms.
Idaho Representative Ron Nate, one of the bill’s sponsors, issued the following comment to ABC4 concerning the bill-turned-law:
“Public funds should never be used to promote hate and racism. House Bill 377 is a great win for Idaho because it prohibits the promotion of Social Justice programming and advocacy for Critical Race Theory (CRT) in our schools and universities. CRT, rooted in Marxist thought, is a pernicious way of viewing the world. It demands that everything in society be viewed through the lens of racism, sexism, and power.”
In its waning days, Donald Trump’s administration tried to ban federal employees from incorporating CRT into training plans (the order was blocked by a judge, then reversed by President Biden). And in Congress, Republicans who previously advocated for state and local control of education are now pushing to forbid any public institution from teaching CRT on pain of losing all federal funding.
Critical race theory isn’t an invention of the right wing. It’s a real field of academic inquiry, dating back to the 1970s, which analyzes how bias is embedded in laws and institutions. According to CRT, discriminatory outcomes don’t arise from individual acts of prejudice, but from systemic factors that persist even in the absence of bad intentions. As one of the founding scholars of the field, Kimberlé Crenshaw, put it: “It’s an approach to grappling with a history of White supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”
(An example of this is the way that restrictive covenants and redlining policies conspired to ensure that urban slums and suburbs are still segregated along racial lines, many decades after they were built and well after explicit discrimination ceased to be the rule.)
However, the way that the right talks about CRT bears scant resemblance to its real meaning. Instead, they use it as an umbrella term for anything and everything that makes white conservatives angry. Specifically, they believe that “critical race theory” means teaching any facts which might reflect badly on America or lead students to conclude that this nation has sometimes been unfair to minorities.
That’s not an inference. It’s something they’ve said outright, as in this tweet from Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute:
The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think "critical race theory." We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.
— Christopher F. Rufo ?? (@realchrisrufo) March 15, 2021
In another tweet, Rufo claimed that any school which teaches about white privilege, intersectionality, equity or anti-racism (!) is secretly teaching CRT:
If your school district teaches any of the following concepts, it's teaching critical race theory:
— Christopher F. Rufo ?? (@realchrisrufo) June 26, 2021
What wouldn’t be swept up by these definitions? Under this broad heading, we might include: the genocide of Native Americans; the federal government violating treaty after treaty with them, expelling tribes from their ancestral homes so white settlers could take over the land; the reliance on slavery as a defining feature of the early American economy; the fact that Southern states fought the Civil War in an attempt to preserve it; the laws which excluded immigrants from supposedly inferior races; the unjust incarceration of innocent Japanese-Americans during World War II; the Jim Crow laws which consigned that Black people to second-class status and went to huge lengths to stop them from voting; race riots, lynching and other terror tactics; redlining and job discrimination which prevented Black people from building wealth and consigned them to resource-starved ghettos; and police violence against people of color and mass incarceration of minority communities.
All these topics, under the right wing’s ludicrously overbroad definition, would be impermissible to teach or learn about. And that’s precisely the point.
These things, painful as they may be to contemplate, are plain historical facts. All of them are indelible parts of America’s story. And if we’re going to make moral progress, we have to look at the past with a clear eye. You can’t atone for past misdeeds without acknowledging what they were. You can’t have reconciliation until you have truth.
Of course, the right wing doesn’t think we need to make moral progress. They think America was perfect just as it was, in the good old days when white Christian men were in charge. But because the historical record doesn’t validate that belief, they want to silence all discussion of the historical record, except in cramped and narrowly circumscribed form.
It’s infuriating that so many right-wing legislators think it’s their place to decree what schools teach. It should make us angry, passionately so, that a school curriculum might be decided not by educators and experts, but by the poison-spreaders of Fox News. However, these anti-CRT laws should be seen for what they are: a pure desperation move.
After all, no law can keep an idea out of people’s heads. Even if these bans pass First Amendment muster – which isn’t a given, even with so many new conservative judges – it will only increase the appeal of this philosophy by turning it into forbidden knowledge. There’s no surer way to get people interested in learning about something than by telling them they’re not allowed to. A case in point is Iowa, which is no bastion of progressive thought, but even here majorities oppose the anti-CRT bill.
What’s more, the right has elevated this previously obscure academic field by talking about it so much, rather than inventing a brand-new term to be their boogeyman of the week. In so doing, they’re running the risk that they’ll actually make people curious to learn more about it, rather than conditioning them to knee-jerk rejection of CRT and anything else that sounds like it. It’s a dangerous game, one I doubt they’d be playing if they weren’t afraid.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that conservatives are in a panic about this. They know as well as we do that we’re on the cusp of change. It’s just possible that America is awakening to its racist past in a way that right-wing whitewashers don’t want to happen.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, the nation was swept by protests that reached into cities and suburbs where such movements were previously unheard of. Books on racial justice skyrocketed to the top of the best-seller list.
To conservatives, who believe the past was always better, these developments represent a mortal threat. They’re afraid that more Americans will awaken to the contradictions of our history. They’re afraid that more Americans will reject belligerent, mindless jingoism and start to demand real change and real justice. But their only counterstrategy is enforced ignorance: trying to silence opposing ideas, trying to keep people in the dark. Over the long run of history, that’s a strategy that’s never succeeded.