Quarrels About Critical Race Theory and the Teaching of “Divisive Topics” Persist and Expand

Pitched battles about so-called “Critical Race Theory” and attempts to ban the teaching of “controversial topics” continue to swell across the states.  What follows is a summary of some of the recent coverage describing where and how this war is being waged.

Diane Ravitch provides a summary: “(T)he nation’s public schools have been the object of savage attacks by politicians and ideologues who claim that the schools are teaching ‘critical race theory’ and indoctrinating (white) children… (L)egislators in red states have passed laws mandating that teachers are not allowed to teach about systemic racism or to teach anything that might make some students (white) feel ‘uncomfortable.’ At least 10 states have passed such laws, including Florida, Georgia, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, Idaho, Tennessee, South Carolina, New Hampshire, and North Dakota. Sometimes such laws are called ‘divisive concepts’ laws, because they forbid the teaching of anything that is ‘divisive.’… Teachers in red states that have passed laws against CRT and divisive concepts are wary about teaching about racism. Is teaching about slavery, Jim Crow, and the persistence of segregation a violation of the law? Should teachers avoid any mention of the Ku Klux Klan or modern-day white supremacists?”

Promoters of the laws being passed say that they want to protect parents’ freedom to determine what their children should be taught at school, but NY Times columnist, Paul Krugman believes that the ideologues behind the controversy are, in fact, threatening freedom: “Americans like to think of their nation as a beacon of freedom… Now, however, freedom is under attack, on more fronts than many people realize. Everyone knows about the Big Lie, this refusal by a large majority of Republicans to accept the legitimacy of a lost election. But there are many other areas in which freedom is not just under assault but in retreat.  Let’s talk, in particular, about the attack on education, especially, but not only, in Florida, which has become one of America’s leading laboratories of democratic erosion… There’s a bill advancing in the Florida Senate declaring that an individual ‘should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.’ That is, the criterion for what can be taught isn’t ‘Is it true?’ ‘Is it supported by the scholarly consensus?’ but rather ‘Does it make certain constituencies uncomfortable?’… And who will enforce the rules? State-sponsored vigilantes! Last month Ron DeSantis, Florida’s governor, proposed a ‘Stop Woke Act’ that would empower parents to sue school districts they claim teach critical race theory—and collect lawyer fees…. Even the prospect of such lawsuits would have a chilling effect on teaching.”

Krugman describes what’s happening in Florida, but it’s not just in Florida. The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss describes Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s new executive order: “In case you missed it, Virginia’s now governor, Glenn Youngkin, has set up a ‘tip line’ for people to snitch on teachers who supposedly are promoting ‘divisive practices’ and to report on violations of his order against mask mandates. The tip line follows his very first executive order, issued Jan. 22, which forbids the teaching of ‘inherently divisive concepts, including Critical Race Theory.'” Strauss adds: “Virginia isn’t original with the teacher tip line idea but is joining a small but growing group of state leaders and legislators who think encouraging citizens to turn on each other is a useful idea in a democracy. For example, in November, the New Hampshire Department of Education set up a website that allows parents to report violations of the state’s 2021 anti-discrimination law, one of a number that use vague language in an attempt to bar teachers from exploring systemic racism with students. Incidentally, it was also in New Hampshire where a chapter of a right-wing group called Moms for Liberty offered a $500 bounty in December that would go to the person who makes the first confirmed report against a teacher.”

In an impassioned editorial, the Columbus Dispatch opposed two laws that have been pending for months in the Ohio Legislature to ban the teaching of divisive concepts: “(These bills) should be rejected outright as toxic to children and truth… (They) are not about protecting children from critical race theory, but they do create a boogeyman people fear.” “It should stir our souls to learn that 17 million people—a number that excludes the millions who died along the way—were trapped in Africa and transported here as part of the Transatlantic Slave Trade, an outrage the United Nations calls ‘the worst violations of human rights in the history of humanity.’ We should feel sorrow that some experts estimate as much of 95% of the native inhabitants of the Americas—as many as 20 million people—were wiped out by smallpox in the years following the arrival of Europeans. Knowing and discussing factual occurrences of the past is not a bad thing even though they may make people feel bad.” “Many good and inspiring things happened in the past, but history—American and world—is full of a lot of brutality. Teachers must be empowered to go beyond the surface to help students find truth… The future of Ohio’s children hangs in the balance. The governor said he wants children to be good citizens who are capable of critical thinking, research, and debate. We should all want those things as well, but sugarcoating history to spare ‘feelings’…. is a betrayal of the past that poisons the future.”

There are reports of widespread book banning. The Guardian‘s Adam Gabbatt reports: “Conservative groups across the U.S., often linked to deep-pocketed rightwing donors, are carrying out a campaign to ban books from school libraries, often focused on works that address race, LGBTQ issues or marginalized communities. Literature has already been removed from schools in Texas, Pennsylvania, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. Librarians and teachers warn the trend is on the increase, as groups backed by wealthy Republican donors use centrally drawn up tactics and messaging to harangue school districts into removing certain texts… Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the American Library Association’s office for Intellectual Freedom…. said ALA received 156 book challenges—an attempt to remove or restrict one or more books—in 2020. In the last three months of 2021 alone, the organization saw 330 book challenges.  In most incidents there is a common format. According to conservative groups, one parent of a child at school has spotted an allegedly unsuitable book, and has raised the alarm.  But the movement is far from organic.  The name Moms for Liberty might suggest a homely, kitchen-table effort. In reality, Moms for Liberty is associated with other supposed grassroots groups backed by conservative donors, who appear to be driving the book-banning effort.”

Contrary to the allegations of angry parents mobbing school board meetings, children are not harmed by learning the truth. Chalkbeat just published a moving column by Katherine Sanford, a Northern California social studies teacher whose class raised enough money to take civil rights tour of Alabama and Georgia: “Here in the hills of Northern California, in a community where many deeds still have restrictive covenants on them, it can feel like we are too far removed from certain parts of American history. Several years ago, when it came to my attention that some of my students were casually using the N-word and homophobic language outside of class, my concern only deepened. Black culture was a subject of fascination, but Black people were being denied their humanity. I decided my normal teaching tactics weren’t enough. In 2019, my students and I raised money to fly from California to Georgia and Alabama.”  Sanford’s students definitely felt uncomfortable about what they learned by walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and visiting civil rights museums, but Sanford does not believe their experience of sadness hurt them in any way: “The most powerful learning experiences came at museums that brought history alive. At the Equal Justice Initiative’s Legacy Museum in Montgomery, there are holograms of enslaved people in cages awaiting sale. One was calling repeatedly for her children from whom she had been separated. Several students had to walk back outside to catch their breath, and I could see on my students’ faces that they truly understood what it meant to deny someone’s humanity.”

What appears to be a parent-led attack on so-called “Critical Race Theory” and divisive concepts is, in fact, a well-designed political initiative—led by organizations like Moms for Liberty, FreedomWorks, Parents Defending Education, and No Left Turn in Education—designed by think tanks like the Manhattan Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute—and paid for by far-right philanthropists. This project has been set up to inflame white parents in segregated suburbs, or, as a new report summarized by the National Education Policy Center shows, in districts currently experiencing racial change, by stoking fear that their privilege and their protective historical myths are threatened. The broader effect of this political initiative is already undermining democracy, threatening teachers, and undermining our children’s grasp of the complexity of our history and our nation’s challenges today.

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