What Does Today’s Battle Over “Critical Race Theory” Have in Common with the Old Battle About Evolution?

Jill Lepore’s Why The School Wars Still Rage, in the March 21, 2022, New Yorker Magazine, examines in historical perspective today’s attack on public school teaching about so-called divisive topics and “critical race theory.”  Lepore is a professor of American History at Harvard University.

Lepore traces a direct connection between the battle a hundred years ago over the teaching of evolution in public school science classes and today’s fight about the teaching of so-called “critical race theory” and divisive concepts in social studies classes: “In the nineteen-twenties, legislatures in twenty states, most of them in the South, considered thirty-seven anti-evolution measures. Kentucky’s bill, proposed in 1922… (was) the first. It banned teaching, or countenancing the teaching of, ‘Darwinism, atheism, agnosticism, or the theory of evolution in so far as it pertains to the origin of man.'”… Evolution is a theory of change. But in February—a hundred years, nearly to the day, after the Kentucky legislature debated the nation’s first anti-evolution bill, Republicans in Kentucky introduced a bill that mandates the teaching of twenty-four historical documents beginning with the 1620 Mayflower Compact and ending with Ronald Reagan’s 1964 speech ‘A Time for Choosing.’… In the nineteen-twenties, the curriculum in question was biology; in the twenty-twenties, it’s history.  Both conflicts followed a global pandemic and fights over public education that pitted the rights of parents against the power of the state.”

So what does Lepore believe is the ultimate goal of extremist organizations like the Heritage Foundation who are working to inflame parents agitating about what to teach children and adolescents about the history of our nation and our society?  “(T)his fight isn’t really about history. It’s about political power. Conservatives believe they can win midterm elections, and maybe even the Presidency, by whipping up a frenzy about ‘parents’ rights,’ and many are also in it for another long game, a hundred years’ war: the campaign against public education.”

In some detail, Lepore traces the long fight at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century by parents seeing to protect their own rights against the right of the state to establish compulsory school attendance and vaccine mandates. The teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution became part of this battle: “When anti-evolutionists condemned ‘evolution,’ they meant something as vague and confused as what people mean, today, when they condemn ‘critical race theory.’ Anti-evolutionists weren’t simply objecting to Darwin, whose theory of evolution had been taught for more than half a century. They were objecting to the whole Progressive package, including its philosophy of human betterment, its model of democratic citizenship and its insistence on the interest of the state in free and equal public education as a public good that prevails over the private interests of parents.”

The battle over parents’ rights continued into the rebellion against racial integration that followed the 1954, U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, as Mississippi Senator James Eastland argued that: “‘Free men have the right to send their children to schools of their own choosing’…. By the end of the nineteen-fifties, segregationists had begun using a new catchphrase: ‘school choice,’ maybe because it would have been confusing to call for ‘parents’ rights’ when they were also arguing for ‘states’ rights.'”

What are parents really protesting when they mob school board meetings and press legislators to introduce laws against the teaching of “divisive” concepts? “A century ago, parents who objected to evolution were rejecting the entire Progressive package. Today’s parents’-rights groups like Moms for Liberty, are objecting to a twenty-first-century Progressive package. They’re balking at compulsory vaccination and masking, and some of them do seem to want to destroy public education. They’re also annoyed at the vein of high-handedness, moral crusading, and snobbery that stretches from old-fashioned Progressivism to the modern kind, laced with the same contempt for the rural poor and the devoutly religious.”

But on a deeper level, Lepore believes parents are attacking the public purpose of public schooling in an attempt to protect their own personal parochialism and bias. Parents’ fight to assert their rights as individuals over the rights of the public defines both the old battle over teaching about evolution and today’s “critical race theory” controversy:

“(A)cross the past century, behind parents’ rights, lies another unbroken strain: some Americans’ fierce resistance to the truth that, just as all human beings share common ancestors biologically, all Americans have common ancestors historically. A few parents around the country may not like their children learning that they belong to a much bigger family—whether it’s a human family or an American family—but the idea of public education is dedicated to the cultivation of that bigger sense of covenant, toleration, and obligation.”

Lepore continues: “In the end, no matter what advocates of parents’ rights say, and however much political power they might gain, public schools don’t have a choice: they’ve got to teach, as American history, the history not only of the enslaved Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619 and the English families who sailed to Plymouth on the Mayflower in 1620, but also that of the Algonquian peoples, who were already present in both places, alongside the ongoing stories of all the other Indigenous peoples, and those who came afterward—the Dutch, German, Spanish, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Cambodian, Guatemalan, Japanese, Sikh, Hmong, Tunisian, Afghani, everyone.  That’s why parents don’t have a right to choose the version of American history they like best, a story of only their own family’s origins. Instead the state has an obligation to welcome children into that entire history, their entire inheritance.”

How the Heritage Foundation Became a Leader of “Red Meat” Attacks on Public Schools Teaching the Truth About American History

I was puzzled last May when Education Week‘s Stephen Sawchuck explained that  the new “Critical Race Theory” controversy was being spun out of places like the Heritage Foundation. I had assumed that the Heritage Foundation dealt mostly with arcane libertarian economic issues and the promotion of small government.

On May 18, to help answer the question, “Just what is critical race theory anyway?,” Sawchuck explained: “One conservative organization, the Heritage Foundation, recently attributed a whole host of issues to CRT, including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and organizations, California’s recent ethnic studies model curriculum, the free-speech debate on college campuses, and alternatives to exclusionary discipline….  ‘When followed to its logical conclusion, CRT is destructive and rejects the fundamental ideas on which our constitutional republic is based,’ the organization claimed.”

How did the Heritage Foundation become pivotal in the racist and politically motivated attack on the honest teaching of American history in public schools?  Yesterday, the Washington Post‘s Jeff Stein and Yeganeh Torbati explained that the Heritage Foundation fired its president and moved closer to Trumpism.

The Heritage Foundation replaced former president, Kay Coles James with Kevin Roberts, who, “most recently led the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation” and who “told the Heritage news organization, the Daily Signal, that his top three priorities at Heritage are ‘education, education, and education.'” “Roberts said he was among the most outspoken members of Gov. Greg Abbott’s… pandemic ‘state strike force’ in pushing for an end to coronavirus-related restrictions.”

Stein and Torbati fill in some history: “The Heritage Foundation has long shaped mainstream Republican policy in Washington. It drafted much of Ronald Reagan’s agenda to slash federal spending and launched a ferocious campaign to repeal Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act… The leadership changes mark a retreat from traditional but stodgy fiscal and foreign policy issues in favor of the hot-button education and vaccine debates that increasingly defined the Republican Party in the era of Trump.  The change also comes as Heritage is struggling to compete for right-wing dollars while new think tanks are cropping up around town, including several launched by such Trump acolytes as former White House budget chief Russ Vought and top domestic policy aide Brooke Rollins.”

Stein and Torbati explain the ideological pressures that have driven change at the Heritage Foundation: “Even as Heritage staffers cycled into the federal government to staff the Trump administration, the think tank found itself repeatedly at odds with then-President Trump’s allies. Heritage officials have long decried big government deficits, but Trump added nearly $8 trillion to the national debt, the most by any president. Trump also imposed enormously controversial tariffs on foreign countries, while Heritage has long advocated free trade. Trump took direct aim at the Silicon Valley giants who donate heavily to conservative causes, and Heritage experts criticized Trump’s attacks on China.”

The reporters describe how Fox News pressured for change at the Heritage Foundation: “Tucker Carlson, a Trump ally and arguably the most influential conservative voice in the country, often led the charge. In 2019, Carlson said Heritage ‘no longer represents the interest of conservatives’… In 2020, Carlson included James (then Heritage’s president) in a roundup of conservative leaders who ‘joined the left’s chorus’ in not strongly enough denouncing violence and property destruction at protests of the murder of George Floyd.  James, who is Black, wrote an op ed for Fox News… saying that she does ‘not condone the violence spreading across this country in response to Floyd’s horrific killing.’ She also condemned the ‘ugly racism that stains our nation’s history and afflicts us like a cancer of the soul.’ Carlson called the op-ed a ‘long screed denouncing America as an irredeemably racist nation.'”

Under Kevin Roberts’ new leadership, different priorities have emerged. Stein and Torbati report: “The Think tank is positioning itself to play a key role in the emerging flash points for the party. Roberts has made clear in several interviews that he views cultural questions—including over education and ‘critical race theory’—as top priorities.”

If you look at the Heritage Foundation website today, you will find myriad reports, commentaries, and videos setting up the attack on so called “critical race theory” in public schools.  Here is the inflammatory declaration at the top of the Foundation’s pages on “critical race theory”: “Critical race theory (CRT) makes race the prism through which its proponents analyze all aspects of American life, categorizing individuals into groups of oppressors and victims. It is a philosophy that is infecting everything from politics and education to the workplace and the military.”

It is clear that the position of the Heritage Foundation today is to promote racism itself as the prism through which everyone filters all aspects of American life.

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.

Glenn Youngkin’s Campaign in Virginia Was about Something Sinister, Not about Public Education

If you listen to the national news on CNN or PBS or the networks, you have been told how shocking it was that public education became a hot issue in the Virginia gubernatorial race.  These newscasters, who rarely cover statewide news and were reporting on the Virginia election as a national bell weather, seemed surprised that public school policy had caught voters’ attention. In fact, public schooling is regularly an issue when candidates run for state legislatures or governor. Usually a third or more of a state’s budget pays for the public schools, and most public education policy is made by state legislators and administered by governors according to the principles defined in the 50 state constitutions.

But what was unusual in Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for governor of Virginia is that it was not really about the state’s public schools, despite that there was some discussion in both his and Terry McAuliffe’s campaigns about the funding of the state’s schools.

As more and more commentators are taking the trouble to explain, Youngkin’s campaign was instead a tissue of dog whistle appeals to racism, the culmination of a months’ long strategy by policy think tanks to redefine an arcane academic term, “Critical Race Theory” for the purpose of provoking fear among white, Republican parents.

The truth is that far-right groups are inflaming parents with an artificially constructed argument that public school teachers and curriculum directors are trying to make white children anxious or guilty or ashamed.  In June, The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identified Christopher Rufo as a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight.”

More recently the National Education Policy Center documented that Rufo is, in fact, a well-paid fellow of the Manhattan Institute: “The work and social media posts of Manhattan Institute senior fellow Christopher Rufo offer a good example of how far Right ideologues push the anti-Critical Race Theory narrative… On Twitter, Rufo states his objective and brags about his success: ‘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, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category… 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 race of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.’”

The National Education Policy Center traces the work aimed at inspiring this year’s controversy about Critical Race Theory to particular think tanks including the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Goldwater Institute, the Heritage Foundation, Koch family foundations, and the Manhattan Institute.  Well funded groups working to galvanize parents include Parents Defending Education,  Moms for LibertyNo Left Turn in Education,  FreedomWorks, and  Parents’ Rights in Education.

In a column in yesterday’s NY Times, political strategists Tory Gavito and Adam Jentleson analyze what happened Tuesday in Virginia’s election for governor: “The Virginia election results should shock Democrats into confronting the powerful role that racially coded attacks play in American politics. No candidate would think of entering an election without a winning message on the economy or health care. Yet by failing to counter his opponent’s racial dog whistles, Terry McAuliffe did the equivalent, finding himself defenseless against a strategy Republicans have used to win elections for decades. Crucially, the Republican nominee, Glenn Youngkin, was able to use racially coded attacks to motivate sky-high white turnout… (T)he past half-century of American political history shows that racially coded attacks are how Republicans have been winning elections… from Richard Nixon’s ‘law and order’ campaign to Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queens’ and George H.W. Bush’s Willie Horton ad.  Many of these campaigns were masterminded by the strategist Lee Atwater, who in 1981 offered a blunt explanation: Being overtly racist backfires, he noted, ‘so you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.’  C.R.T. (Critical Race Theory) is straight out of the Atwater playbook.”

It is rare for me to agree wholeheartedly with Frederick Hess, a neoliberal corporate school reformer who supported No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime, who bought into Race to the Top, and who supports the expansion of charter schools. But today, Hess’s analysis of Terry McAuliffe’s loss in the Virginia governor’s race is persuasive.  Washington Post reporter Hannah Natanson describes Hess’s concerns:

“Frederick Hess, a senior fellow and director of education policy studies at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said he thinks one of McAuliffe’s fatal blunders was to avoid forthrightly addressing the issue of critical race theory and anti-racism initiatives including teacher-bias trainings. McAuliffe should have told parents that he wants to ensure every kid feels valued and learns the country’s true history,  Hess said — but McAuliffe should have made clear that does not mean letting interest groups or ideologues shape public school curriculums. ‘That would have lanced the boil in a very powerful way, and they could have reset the conversation…. If Democrats start making those decisions and articulating those arguments, I think this could all turn out to be a post-Trump fever and it breaks…. But if Democrats can’t bring themselves to do that… I think this could very well build to a head of steam in 2024.”

This blog has covered the controversy about Critical Race Theory here, here, here, here, here, and here.

National Education Policy Center’s New Brief on Critical Race Theory Is a Must-Read for All Americans

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.”

Philanthropic Dollars Are Funding the Effort to Distract Legislatures and School Boards with a Debate about Critical Race Theory

The concept of Critical Race Theory—that racism throughout U.S. history has been structural and institutional and not merely a matter of personal prejudice—is theoretical and has been taught in colleges, graduate schools and law schools but rarely in the public schools. (See here and here.) More basic educational lessons in K-12 public schools to help students and educators learn about racism and be more sensitive to the needs and history of people from the different cultures who make up our society are neither frightening nor threatening.

The recent brouhaha, which alleges something dangerous about Critical Race Theory and racial sensitivity training, would appear just to have emerged on Fox News and social media. But if that’s true, how is it that more than half the state legislatures are debating legislation or have passed laws to prohibit discussions in public school social studies classes of sensitive subjects that might make students feel uncomfortable or guilty?  And why, last week, did 135 national academic and professional organizations feel compelled to write a letter declaring “our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities.”?

Earlier this week, Judd Legum and Tesnim Zekeria of Popular Information reported: “This didn’t happen on its own. Rather, there is a constellation of non-profit groups and media outlets that are systematically injecting Critical Race Theory (CRT) into our politics. In 2020, most people had never heard of CRT.  In 2021, a chorus of voices on the right insists it is an existential threat to the country. A Popular Information investigation reveals that many of the entities behind the CRT panic share a common funding source: The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.  The Thomas W. Smith Foundation has no website and its namesake founder keeps a low public profile.”

Legum and Zekeria explain: “Between 2017 and 2019, the Thomas W. Smith Foundation has granted at least $12.75 million to organizations that publicly attack Critical Race Theory… The Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has recently been at the forefront of the crusade against CRT.  It is also the top recipient of cash from The Thomas W. Smith Foundation.” The Manhattan Institute received $4.32 million from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation between 2017-2019.  We learn that Christopher Rufo, who appeared seemingly from nowhere on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and openly claimed he has been working to distort and make toxic an academic theory about structural and institutional racism by conflating any number of topics into what he called “a new bucket called critical race theory,” isn’t merely a documentary film maker, as has been reported.  He is a well-paid fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

From Legum and Zekeria we learn: “The right-wing Heritage Foundation, which previously employed Rufo, also receives substantial support from Thomas W. Smith Foundation… In June 2021, the executive director of the Heritage Foundation told Politico that fighting ‘critical race theory’ is one of the top two issues the group is working on alongside efforts to tighten voting laws.'”  Between 2017 and 2019, the Heritage Foundation received $525,000 from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation.

The list of organizations receiving funding from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation is lengthy: the American Enterprise Institute, the Alexander Hamilton Institute, the American Ideas Institute, the Center for American Greatness, the Claremont Institute, the Daily Caller Foundation, The Federalist, Heterodox Academy, the Independent Women’s Forum, Judicial Watch, Turning Point, The National Review, PragerU, The Real Clear Foundation, The Texas Public Policy Foundation, The American Spectator, the Federalist Society, and Young America’s Foundation.

Two other significant recipients must be named because of their reach into public policy. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) drafts model laws to be copied and adapted into legislation by any state legislature. And the State Policy Network (SPN) works with ALEC; its mission is to work actively through its network of politically conservative state policy think tanks to promote coordinated legislation across the 50 state legislatures. Legum and Zekeria report: “The American Legislative Exchange Council… has been hosting webinars to help lawmakers draft legislation banning Critical Race Theory (and) has received at least $425,000 from the Thomas W. Smith Foundation since 2017.  In December 2020, ALEC hosted a workshop in partnership with the Heritage Foundation on ‘Reclaiming Education and the American Dream… Against Critical Race Theory’s Onslaught.'” With so many of nation’s state legislatures and state boards of education considering similar bills and resolutions to ban public school discussion of so-called “threatening” topics, ALEC’s and SPN’s fingerprints are almost inevitable.

Wealthy philanthropists now use their so-called charitable foundations to shape public policy. Most of us are aware that today, philanthropy is not merely investing in charitable grants to needy causes in response to applicants’ requests for support. The seemingly sudden emergence of the idea that something called “Critical Race Theory” has become a crisis in our public schools is merely the latest example of philanthropic dollars spreading ideology.

As a response, we need to consider the words of the leaders of 135 academic and professional organizations who declared last week: “(T)he 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.”

While Statehouses Try to Legislate Against Teaching about Racism, Educators and Historians Fight to Protect Students from Censorship

Right now I am in the middle of reading and enjoying Louise Erdrich’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Night Watchman. What makes this book so fascinating for me is that it is about the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota, people who are related to the Chippewa and Cree people who live on the Rocky Boys Indian Reservation just outside the Montana town where I grew up.

Erdrich’s novel explores the American Indian cultures along the Canadian border and the injustices of what has been called “the termination and relocation era” in the mid-twentieth century. In 1953, Congress considered a joint resolution to terminate the historic treaties negotiated by the federal government with the indigenous people across the nation. Politically, Congress promoted the termination resolution as though it would be a ticket to freedom for the residents of North Dakota’s Turtle Mountain Reservation and other native people, but the goal instead was to force them to disperse, relocate and assimilate. Erdrich depicts the grassroots battle mounted—successfully—by tribal leaders to protect their people’s rights, their culture, and the tribal property. In her book, Erdrich also examines the exploitation of Chippewa women who had relocated from the reservation to the Twin Cities without the protection of their traditional community.

Reading this book and exploring the truth of the injustices thrust on American Indian communities in the mid-twentieth century is not a shock to me because I have been aware of some of this history for a long time. A good friend from the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota had already taught me about the construction of the Garrison Dam on the Missouri River, a dam that flooded many of the native communities and, in 1953 and 1954, displaced the low-lying towns in Fort Berthold—forcing them to relocate to higher ground.

Like a lot of students who went through high school in the 1960s in northern Montana, and I’m sure, North Dakota and Minnesota, I didn’t learn much of this history at school. I am, however, fascinated to read about it as an adult. The far-right politicians and promoters of laws to prevent the teaching of such history at school now allege that as a white teenager, I would have felt guilty or demeaned—with my self esteem damaged—if I had been encouraged to learn this history at school. But I don’t believe it. Erdrich’s book interests me particularly because the novel explains so much about what I observed and couldn’t possibly understand as I was growing up.

When teachers help students honestly explore the injustices in American history, far-right hate-mongers accuse teachers of teaching something they call “critical race theory.”  Despite the need for schools honestly to teach history, today far-right state legislators are introducing laws to ban such teaching as unpatriotic and threatening to the self esteem of young people who are part of the dominant culture. Parents are mounting campaigns to get teachers fired if they openly discuss “threatening” topics like racial injustice with their students.

Although critical race theory is an academic concept developed in colleges of law to uncover, name, and deconstruct structural and institutional racism, far right ideologues have intentionally distorted the meaning. The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey report that, for example, Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist wrote on Twitter that his goal—talking with Tucker Carlson on Fox News, for example—has been to conflate any number of topics into what he called “a new bucket” called critical race theory.

Last week strong pushback emerged to defend teachers’ right to explore and honestly discuss our nation’s history with our children in public schools. For the Washington Post, Hannah Natanson reports: “Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, warned in a speech Tuesday that conservative lawmakers, pundits and news sites are waging a ‘culture campaign’ against critical race theory.  The theory is a decades-old academic framework that asserts racism is woven into the history and thus the present of the nation, helping shape how institutions and systems function…. Weingarten said that critical race theory is not taught in U.S. elementary, middle and high schools. The theory is taught only in law school and in college…. ‘But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as critical race theory to try to make it toxic… They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.’… Weingarten said that the American Federation of Teachers, which has about 1.7 million members, has ‘a legal-defense fund’ ready to go.'”

Then on Friday, 135 prominent academic and educational organizations released a  Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History to confront a right-wing conservative attack on the accurate teaching of American history: “We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges and universities. These efforts have taken varied shape in at least 20 states, but often the legislation aims to prohibit or impede the teaching and education of students concerning what are termed ‘divisive concepts.’ These divisive concepts as defined in numerous bills are a litany of vague and indefinite buzzwords and phrases including, for example, ‘that any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort… guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.’ These legislative efforts are deeply troubling for numerous reasons.”

The statement continues: ” First, these 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.”

“Second, these legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements… Politicians in a democratic society should not manipulate public school curricula to advance partisan or ideological aims… 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.”

This blog previously explored the attack on teaching about systemic racism here.

How Is Far-Right Propaganda about Critical Race Theory Undermining Society and Our Children’s Education?

The news is flooded with hysteria about something called “critical race theory.” I am being told that the anti-bias and anti-racism programs I participated in at work were terrifying experiences that threatened who I am and undermined my patriotism—even though I don’t remember those workshops as threatening my identity at all. Legislatures across the country are passing laws to punish educators who teach honestly about slavery, the abuses of Jim Crow, and boarding schools that tried to force American Indian children to deny their culture. This post will address three simple and related questions: What did the term “critical race theory” mean in the past? What is it that fear-mongering extremists have folded together to change the original meaning of “critical race theory” into something supposedly terrifying? How is today’s hysteria about critical race theory undermining our children’s education?

What did “critical race theory” used to mean before extremists manipulated it this year in the right-wing press? 

Many people have thought about racism basically as personal bias or prejudice. But critical race theory is an academic concept that addresses much more systemic institutional and structural racism. The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss explains: “Critical race theory is a decades-old academic framework that holds that racism is systemic, embedded in government policies and laws that are evident in any serious examination of American history. Critics say that racism is the work of individual bad actors, and, they say, teachers are improperly injecting race in the classroom.”

National Education Policy Center Fellow Shaun Harper at the University of Southern California provides a more technical definition of “critical race theory”: “Individual actions (both intentional and unconscious) that engender marginalization and inflict varying degrees of harm on minoritized persons; structures that determine and cyclically remanufacture racial inequity; and institutional norms that sustain white privilege and permit the ongoing subordination of minoritized persons.”

In  Education Week, Janel George adds: “Like many academic theories, Critical Race Theory is complex and constantly evolving. However, it can be characterized by a few tenets which challenge many traditional understandings of race and racial inequality. The Human Genome Project found that humans share 99.9 percent of the same genetic makeup, despite our different appearances. Critical race theory recognizes that our ideas of racial difference—which run counter to this scientific evidence—have been socially constructed. It acknowledges how that social construction of race has shaped America and how systems and institutions can do the bulk of replicating racial inequality.”

Emeritus education professor at the University of Wisconsin, former president of the American Educational Research Association, and author of the widely respected textbook, The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, Gloria Ladson-Billings, responds to the current hysteria by emphasizing the importance of addressing institutional racism that affects children at school: “Curricula that largely exclude the history and lived experiences of Americans of color are the norm. Deficit-oriented instruction often characterizes students of color as failures if a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for them. Standardized-test scores from assessments detached from what students learn in the classroom are widely used to confirm narratives about the ineducability of children of color.”

Here are just two examples of structural racism.  In his book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein traces government policies and laws that have perpetuated racially segregated housing—zoning for segregation, the choice of sites for public housing, legally protected mortgage and insurance redlining, and racial bias in the approval of Veterans Administration and FHA loans. In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black examines the explicit efforts of the post-Reconstruction state legislatures across the former Confederacy to segregate and underfund schools for Black children.  Later he describes the decades of legal work by the NAACP’s Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall to undo structural school segregation by race. What then followed after Brown v. Board of Education were efforts to stop school integration in court cases like Milliken v. Bradley that blocked school busing across suburban jurisdictional boundaries.

How Have Extremists Transformed and Politicized the Meaning of “Critical Race Theory”?

The Washington Post‘s Laura Meckler and Josh Dawsey identify Christopher Rufo, a 36-year-old documentary filmmaker and media opportunist from Seattle: “Rufo has played a key role in the national debate, defining diversity trainings and other programs as critical race theory, putting out examples that legislators and others then cite…. He continues to appear regularly on Fox News to discuss the issue and often offers strategic advice over how to win the political fight. In March, he wrote on Twitter that his goal was to conflate any number of topics into a new bucket called critical race theory. ‘We have successfully frozen their brand—critical race theory—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions.'”

The New Yorker‘s Benjamin Wallace-Wells describes Rufo’s strategy to redefine critical race theory:  “He thought that the phrase was a better description of what conservatives were opposing, but it also seemed like a promising political weapon.”  Wallace-Wells quotes Rufo: “Its connotations are all negative to most middle-class Americans, including racial minorities, who see the world as ‘creative’ rather than ‘critical,’ ‘individual’ rather than ‘racial,’ ‘practical’ rather than ‘theoretical.’  Strung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”

Finally NBC News has identified No Right Turn in Education, a radical-right parents group whose mission is to undermine honest teaching about American history at school: “When the Gladwyne Elementary School in the suburbs of Philadelphia decided to teach students about the concepts of racism, privilege and justice during the last week of classes, Elana Yaron Fishbein, a mother of two students in the school, sprang into action. Fishbein, a former social worker, sent a letter to the superintendent calling the lessons a ‘plan to indoctrinate the children into the ‘woke’ culture’  She said the superintendent never responded, though the district later said that the lesson plans were age-appropriate and did not shame students and that parents were allowed to opt out. Fishbein said other white parents in the district attacked her on Facebook when she shared the letter. So Fishbein moved her children to private school and started a group to advocate against anti-racist teaching. She called it No Left Turn in Education… Fishbein’s endeavor received a significant boost in September, when she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s prime-time Fox News show. By the next day, No Left Turn‘s Facebook page had shot up from fewer than 200 followers to over 30,000. The group now has 30 chapters in 23 states, a rapid expansion Fishbein credits to Carlson’s show.”

How Have America’s Educators Been Responding to the Current Hysteria?

The editors of Rethinking Schools magazine worry about the rash of laws coming from far-right state legislatures, laws intended to prevent teaching about today’s injustices and their history beginning in slavery and threading through American history: “Lawmakers in a growing number of states are attempting to pass legislation that would require teachers to lie to students about the past and present… To put it another way, in 2021, when children look around at the vast inequalities apparent in every corner of their daily lives—where the wealth of a typical white family is 10 times that of a typical Black family, where a Black person is three times as likely to die in childbirth as a white person, and where African Americans are five times as likely to be in prison as their white counterparts—and ask, ‘Why? Why is it like this?’ that child’s teacher would be prohibited from answering their student’s earnest and urgent question. These laws peddle in bait-and-switch tactics, using the language of anti-discrimination to mask their perpetuation of a discriminatory and unjust status quo… By banning educators from teaching about these realities, lawmakers seek to deny young people the right to understand—and so effectively act upon—the world they’ve been bequeathed.”

David Blight, the Sterling Professor of History at Yale University, looks for hard work to focus on teaching the truth without blaming: “Once again, Americans find themselves at war over their history—what it is, who owns it, how it should be interpreted and taught… History wars follow patterns. The subjects at their core usually carry visceral meaning for large swaths of the public. The disputes quickly invoke curricula, creeping into school boards and state legislatures with increasing stakes… History is politics by other means, and we who care about it have to fight this war better and more strategically ourselves… We need to teach the history of slavery and racism every day, but not through a forest of white guilt or by thrusting the idea of ‘white privilege’ onto working-class people who have very little privilege. Instead, we need to tell more precise stories, stories that do not feed right-wing conspiracists a language that they are waiting to seize, remix and inject back into the body politic as a poison… Historians must write and speak up in the clearest language, in prose our grandmothers can read. We need history that can get us marching but also render us awed by how much there is to learn. Slavery, as personal experience and national trial, is a harrowing human tragedy, and like all great tragedies it leaves us chastened by knowledge, not locked within sin or redemption alone.”

This post intentionally quotes current coverage of this issue from several sources and perspectives.  I hope you will follow the links and read some of the source material.