Behind the Attack on Critical Race Theory

Republican legislatures in approximately thirty states have sprinted to pass legislation which seems intent on banning teachers from discussing race, racism, and what has been termed “divisive” concepts. Also forbidden: anything that makes (white) students feel “discomfort” or a “sense of responsibility” for the past. The current efforts by Republican legislatures and conservative school boards have been packaged as an opposition to “critical race theory” (CRT), an academic framework that views racism as ingrained in law and other modern institutions. But, as others have noted, “critical race theory” is a red herring that functions as a catch-all term that includes any consideration of race and racism (e.g., multiculturalism, “wokeism,” identity politics, culturally responsive teaching, etc.). Any hint that “racial inequities in the United States are anything but fair outcomes, the result of choices made by equally positioned individuals in a free society,” or any attempt to offer anything but a sanitized history of the United States is equally likely to be caught up in the Republicans’ expansive nets.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by USA Today Network via Reuters Connect

CRT emerged in the legal studies field in the 1970s, spreading to other academic disciplines as a series of theoretical propositions. As Jacqueline Jones, president of the American Historical Association, recently summarized, it “provides an intellectual framework for understanding the many ways that governmental entities and private interests have put racial ideologies into practice in the forms of laws, taxation policies, public works projects, regulatory guidelines, profit-making schemes, hiring preferences, and more.” In terms of educational policy, the theoretical concept moves away from the individual child, focusing instead on “suspension rates, assignment to special education, testing and assessment, curricular access…who gets into honors and AP, who doesn’t,” as Gloria Ladson-Billings observed. (Ladson-Billings co-authored what is considered the definitive article on critical race theory in education.)

“Critical race theory” was always a suspicious target for legislators and school board members if only because it simply is not taught at the K-12 level. Indeed, it’s rarely offered at an undergraduate level.  But the increasing diversification of the U.S. population and the unprecedented calls for social justice sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 left the Right searching for a response, and “critical race theory” was at once vague, all-encompassing and suggestively threatening. Fox News, always a good barometer of Right-wing currents, virtually ignored CRT through mid-2020, raising it a scant 12 times between June and August 2020. Then, spurred by Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, Tucker Carlson jumped on board. By September, Trump added the power of the presidency with an executive order banning as “divisive” diversity training in federal agencies. Fast forward one year: between  June and August 2021, Fox referenced CRT over 1,900 times.

To understand the manner in which opposition to “critical race theory” quickly evolved as the target of state-level education legislation, one must appreciate the role that grievance-oriented, violent grassroots protest has come to play in Right-wing and Republican organizing. Much as with the Tea Party’s aggressive hijacking of town hall meetings designed to discuss President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, the Right is now leveraging its opposition to “CRT” – along with hostility to the public health requirements of masking and vaccination – to organize at the local level, insuring that the Republican base remains ginned up and angry. In late September, the National School Boards Association noted the escalation of “[t]hreats of violence and acts of intimidation” directed at school officials across the country and pleaded with the Biden Administration to deploy “existing statutes, executive authority,” and “other extraordinary measures” to combat what it characterized as domestic terrorism. The bills speeding through state legislatures can tell us something about the way in which violence-prone, anti-democratic forces are (once again) gathering behind the flag of a whitewashed, nationalistic version of this country’s history.

Protesters at Williamson County (TN), School Board Meeting (Aug. 10, 2021): CNN

In 1974, for example, disputes over the adoption of new literature textbooks in Kanawha County, West Virginia, quickly turned violent. Opponents, labeling the new texts “anti-American,” shot up empty school buses and classrooms, bombed the school-board building, and threw rocks at parents who didn’t adhere to their boycott. While the new texts were ultimately adopted, according to Adam Laats in The Other School Reformers: Conservative Activism in American Education, the protest helped launch the modern homeschooling and Christian-school movements and propelled the Heritage Foundation from its modest beginnings into the vast conservative policy organization that is fueling today’s school board conflagrations. The same response – violence and a retreat from public schools – marked many white parents’ response to Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

Silencing the Discussion of Race

Over the summer of 2020, state legislatures charged into the classroom in a manner reminiscent of the anti-Communist interventions of the post-war period, attempts in the 1920’s to ban the teaching of evolution, and the post-Reconstruction imposition of segregation in the nation’s schools. If the current legislation that is pouring out of statehouses looks identical, it reflects the fact that most are written by the Right’s “bill-mills,” including the American Legislative Exchange Council, the America First Policy Institute, and the Alliance for Free Citizens.

Reasserting control is fundamental to all the legislative measures: control over Black lives, control over the political process, and, at the level of schools, control over the discussion of race and racism in the classroom. Most bills and successful legislation have adopted language aimed at discouraging or prohibiting teachers from making “race or gender salient in conversations about power and oppression.”  Some states would ban teaching the New York Times’ 1619 Project, a collection of essays examining the role of race and slavery in the country’s origins and later history (Michigan and Missouri); some would prohibit outside speakers from addressing these topics (Kansas). Some states are preventing teachers from promoting social justice for a race, gender, or social class (Arkansas, South Dakota), while others sanction the use of specific materials and resources that foreground the struggles of marginalized groups (Missouri). Most of the bills forbid the teaching of so called “divisive concepts,” as first defined by Trump’s September 2020 executive order. These prohibit raising the idea that the United States is fundamentally racist or sexist, as well as touching on any subject that would cause an individual to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” The legislation passed in Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas specifies that these ideas cannot be made “part of a course.”  Arizona’s law would ban teachers from suggesting, among other things, that an individual by the virtue of their race or sex “bears responsibility for actions committed by other members of their race, ethnic group or sex.” According to it co-author, Rep. Chuck Wichgers (R-Muskegon), the legislation which recently passed the Wisconsin State Assembly would ban such concepts as “Social Emotional Learning,” “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion,” culturally responsive teaching, anti-racism, conscious and unconscious bias, culturally responsive practices, diversity training, equity, microaggressions, multiculturalism, patriarchy, restorative justice, social justice, systemic racism, white privilege, white supremacy and “woke,” among others.


Truth be told, if legislators were concerned that students not “feel discomfort” because of their race or sex, they would have sought means to protect Black, and other marginalized students in their schools long before now. Rather, what the race to legislate the discussion of race has made clear is that these laws are part of the Right’s response – highlighted by its voter suppression laws — to the rising movement for social justice building since the early 2010’s and reaching an astonishing peak following Floyd’s murder. Whether or not the legislation passes or courts ultimately uphold their constitutionality, their purpose is to intimidate and, ultimately, to silence. Teachers in Arizona, for example, face the suspension or revocation of their teaching certificate if they violate the law. “If you pass a bill that makes educators scared to talk about stuff, because you can potentially go after their license,” noted Chris Kotterman, director of governmental relations for Arizona’s School Board Association, “then they’re not going to walk up to that line. And that’s what the proponents of the bill actually want.” In Wisconsin, proponents of the pending legislation recommended that teachers be filmed or audio recorded so the content of their lessons could be reviewed in the “same way police body cameras are used.”

Whitewashing the Past

An essential part of the Right’s attempt to silence the discussion of race and racism in the U.S. is the demand that American history be represented as exemplary and unblemished.  Teachers are forbidden from teaching that slavery is anything other than a “betrayal of America’s founding values” (Texas). A bill in Michigan prohibits the teaching of any theories deemed to be “anti-American.” Missouri bans materials from the [Howard] Zinn Education Project. The Heritage Foundation, a significant generator of these bills, insists that CRT “seeks to undermine the foundations of American society.” The demand to institutionalize a singular glorious history is closely tied to Trump’s authoritarian “America First” ideology. In a Constitution Day speech in September 2020, Trump left no doubts about the doctrinaire intentions of his goal to “restore a patriotic education” to the nation’s schools: “Our mission, “ he intoned, “is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world.” And yet, as the American Historical Association and 147 organizations that oppose the imposition of gag rules in the nation’s classrooms, recently argued, “Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living [which] includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past.”

At the present time, the courts, State Boards of Education, local school boards and teachers are sorting themselves on both sides of the legislation. Arizona’s Supreme Court will take up the constitutionality of that state’s measures in early October, and many admit that in Arizona and elsewhere the stunning vagueness of the legislation will make it unenforceable. And yet, crafting legislation to enhance learning and protect children was never the Republican legislators’ intention. Forbidding the study of race, as they are attempting, will not make racism and its legacies disappear, as they well know it, for events in the “real world” disclose a different reality. There, students returning to a new school year at Park Hill South High School in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO, were greeted by a student-designed petition calling for slavery to be reinstituted. In the real world, white students at Barker Road Middle School in Rochester, NY, texted each other about enrolling Black people in “slave training” so they could “be on the field working like n—–s should.” A teacher at the Winterville Charter Academy (Winston-Salem, NC) told Black students in her class that “if not for the Constitution,” they would be her “field slaves.” (The Constitution, of course, permitted slavery.) In the real world, superintendents and teachers have been harassed and fired for supporting anti-racist efforts in their schools, moderate school boards have been replaced by slates of “patriots,” and educators (and their families) have been threatened with physical harm.

Rally against Critical Race Theory, Leesburg, VA, June 12, 2021 (Loudon Times-Mirror)

These measures may keep the Republican base in a state of high dudgeon, but they won’t quash the demands of young people to learn – or Black people from demanding their rights. As Jania Hoover, a high school social studies teacher in Texas, wrote in July, “Young people want to understand the world around them, and it’s my job to do my absolute best to help them make sense of things, even if it’s just by providing them with knowledge of past events that created the inequalities they witness on a regular basis…I want kids to learn about these systems and work to change them.” Monique Cottman, a 15-year veteran teacher in Iowa’s elementary and middle schools, agreed. What teachers want most, she argued is to give children an education that reflects America’s true, complicated history. “As a Black woman in Iowa public schools, this is my calling as a teacher and as an advocate. I believe fundamentally that students, and teachers, need to know the truth.”

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