The National Education Policy Center’ new brief, Understanding the Attacks on Critical Race Theory, is essential reading to support all of us who are puzzled or grieving or outraged by the battle raging across the states about regulating the way public school teachers can teach American history. Or, if you are not aware that these fights have been happening across 26 states, you should definitely read this brief to inform yourself. Far right ideologues are working hard to prevent any discussion about race, racism, and the history of slavery in public school social studies classes.
After all, according to the brief, “Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms.” The brief addresses the questions that puzzle many of us.
What is this battle that that is tearing apart state legislatures, state boards of education, and local school boards?
“Since early 2021, eight states have passed legislation that, broadly speaking, seeks to ban historical information and critical analysis related to race and racism in public school classrooms. Even as many local school boards and state boards of education have been implementing new policies, additional legislation has been or is being, considered in 15 other states and in the U.S. Congress.” “President Trump issued an Executive Order 13950 in September of 2020 to withhold funding from federal entities that promoted nine categories termed ‘divisive concepts’ as well as race or sex ‘stereotyping’ and ‘scapegoating.’ In December 2020, litigation successfully stayed the order, and in January 2021, President Biden rescinded it. However, at least a half-dozen bills with similar aims and approaches have been introduced in Congress… Republican legislators in 26 states introduced copycat legislation to ban certain types of curriculum… Although the framing of the bills varies somewhat by state, they all attempt to ban the use of ‘divisive concepts’ in employee training programs, in K-12 curriculum, and in certain student activities.”
What is Critical Race Theory (called CRT, for short) and how has the meaning of the original academic concept been turned upside down by far right ideologues?
“Critical Race Theory is an academic legal theory developed in the 1970s by Derrick Bell (and colleagues) to examine how race and racism have shaped American institutions, culture, politics, economics and education and to examine how racism produces and sustains inequality… Given that CRT is a theoretical, analytical framework useful primarily to academic researchers, at first glance it seems an odd target for pundits, think tanks, wealthy donors, foundations, and legislators associated with the ideological right to attack… The demand that CRT not be taught in schools is absurd, since it would be hard to find a K-12 school that teaches CRT to begin with… Instead, ideologues are using CRT as a frightening symbol to intensify a collection of cultural and political fears related to race, racism, and the prospect of an increasing number of citizens from marginalized groups participating in the democratic process.”
“Well-established and powerful far Right organizations are driving the current effort to prevent schools from providing historically accurate information about slavery and racist policies and practices, or from examining systemic racism and its manifold impacts. These organizations include The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Goldwater Institute, Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and Manhattan Institute, as well as billionaire-funded advocacy organizations such as Parents Defending Education and the Legal Insurrection Foundation.” The brief quotes Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo describing how he set out to change the meaning of Critical Race Theory and politically charge his new concept: “We have successfully frozen their brand—‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic.”
What are the political objectives of those promoting attacks on CRT?
“We see two overall political objectives of the anti-CRT attacks.”
(1) “Mobilizing a partisan base for upcoming elections… Far Right lawmakers and advocates saw early on the political potential of attacks on discussion of racial and gender justice in schools… In this context, the anti-CRT legislation is intended to mobilize the Republican base for the 2022 midterm elections….”
(2) “Thwarting efforts to promote racial justice by deflecting debate away from systemic racism and suppressing information about it… Most such bills allude to the premise that if a school teaches about racism, White children will be scapegoated for being White and so will experience feelings of guilt and embarrassment related to their race, which will in turn prompt fear and resentment of people of color—and thus promote racial division. This framing promotes distrust in government and opposition to government efforts to address racism.”
How can citizens—who believe that American history should be taught accurately and who believe our children should consider how our society can better embody our stated goals of liberty and justice for all—most effectively respond to provocative and highly charged attacks on teachers and public school curriculum?
“Some ways of engaging politically are likely to be more successful than others. Strategies that may seem logical, such as denouncing ‘dog-whistle’ politicians for being racist, or avoiding mentioning race in order to avoid accusations of engaging in ‘identity politics,’ are not necessarily the most effective…. Efforts to reframe the debate, engage with decision-makers… are more likely to be successful. Of particular interest and importance is research supporting messaging that acknowledges race and racism, but establishes the shared stake of Americans of all racial backgrounds in public education; that contextualizes social, economic, and educational inequities; that illustrates why inequities should concern Americans of all racial backgrounds; and that provides specific examples of solutions. Ultimately, only by understanding the political nature of the attacks… can we choose effective political ways to counter them….”
How does the Fight about Critical Race Theory Fit into the Big Picture?
The National Education Policy Center’s new brief additionally presents the history of politically motivated attacks on the honest acknowledgment of racism in public school social studies classrooms—during the McCarthy era, during the Civil Rights Movement, as a reaction during the Reagan era to educational and political liberalism in the 1960s, and after the tragic death of George Floyd last year. The new brief explains the NY Times Magazine articles called The 1619 Project and the backlash led by President Donald Trump to prevent students from reading these articles as part of high school history and government classes.
It is important to remember that the attacks on teaching about race and racism in public schools are motivated more by politics than they are by educational concerns. In Let Then Eat Tweets: How the Right Rules in an Age of Extreme Inequality, a book published in the summer of 2020 as President Donald Trump was mounting his campaign for reelection, political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson explain: “As the GOP embraced plutocratic practices, it pioneered a set of electoral appeals that were increasingly strident, alarmist, and racially charged.” (Let Them Eat Tweets, p. 4) “What Republicans learned as they refined their strategies for reaching… voters is that issues, whether economic or social, are much less powerful than identities. Issue positions can inform identities, but it is identities—perceptions of shared allegiance and shared threat—that really mobilize.” (Let Then Eat Tweets, p. 117)
But the implications for our children are not only political; they are educational. In June, to confront today’s right-wing attack on the accurate teaching of American history, 135 prominent academic and educational organizations released a Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History : “(T)hese bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students ‘discomfort’ because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase ‘concepts’ or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration… Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.”