Republican legislators in at least 25 states have proposed new bills that would limit the extent to which racism and social justice can be discussed in K-12 classrooms. Essentially, the bills are “designed to keep critical race theory out of schools” due to fears that teaching students about racism will make white children feel guilty and targeted.
Some argue that the attacks against critical race theory are tactics by Republican senators to rally their conservative constituents ahead of the 2022 midterm elections. However, these bills also have negative implications for free speech, as well as anti-racism education and activism in the United States.
What is Critical Race Theory?
In short, critical race theory (CRT) is an academic concept that emerged in the 1970s from Black scholars who believed that the progress brought about by the civil rights movement had started to stagnate. While originally rooted in the legal discipline, CRT has expanded to explore more broadly systemic racism in the United States, from the era of slavery to the present day. Importantly, it also establishes race as a social construct rather than a biological reality. Through the application of economics, sociology, history, and literary theory, CRT aims to fundamentally understand the ways in which racism operates in society, and proposes methods to dismantle systemic racism and liberate BIPOC communities.
In particular, CRT focuses on uplifting the voices of racialized peoples to understand how systemic inequality permeates their everyday lives. CRT theorists such as Kimberlé Crenshaw have also acknowledged the ways that race interacts with other identities, such as gender and class, through a concept called intersectionality. So, while CRT works to understand the intricacies of systemic racism, it also highlights the many different forms oppression can take and its effects on individuals and communities.
Since the murder of George Floyd, discussions surrounding racism in America have taken centre stage. In many instances, contemporary anti-racism activism has drawn directly from CRT to criticize the ways that police brutality, the criminal justice system, and voter suppression continue to harm Black Americans. Of course, this era of racial reckoning has also prompted teachers to think about how to have these conversations in the classroom.
Republican politicians have distorted CRT in order to generate fear towards it. For instance, they argue that CRT discriminates against white children by blaming them for racism and slavery, causing racial divisions in classrooms. CRT has also been attacked for spreading Marxist ideology at the hands of the “radical left” who want to destroy America by distorting its history.
The recent bills to ban CRT from classrooms are not the first Republican efforts to censor the teaching of systemic racism. Republican Congress members introduced a motion to cut funding for the 1619 Project, a New York Times initiative to rework school curriculums to highlight the lasting legacy of slavery. Outside of the classroom, former President Donald Trump also banned racial sensitivity training within federal agencies, calling it “anti-American propaganda.” Many CRT proponents have pointed to how concepts such as “diversity and inclusion” have been conflated to represent CRT, and thus also become demonized.
Scholars and activists who support CRT have argued that anti-CRT bills grossly misrepresent the academic discipline, which works to highlight traditionally marginalized perspectives pertaining to slavery and other elements of American history. In fact, it is not even known to what extent K-12 teachers have been introducing CRT to students, if at all. This, combined with misinformation about what CRT is, demonstrates the reactionary nature of Republican opposition: they have managed to manufacture a problem that simply did not exist in the first place.
The Classroom as a Site of Political Struggle
This is not the first time Republican lawmakers have sought to alter curriculums due to political beliefs at the expense of students. In sex education, many conservatives continue to support ineffective abstinence-only rhetoric, and also resist reforms to include discussions about sexual orientation and gender identity.
In part fueled by Trump’s legacy, the Republican Party relies on racist rhetoric and the stoking of racial divisions to incite its base of supporters. To contextualize anti-CRT discourse, many Republicans feel as though their racist opinions have repeatedly been shut down by progressives due to “cancel culture.” As such, some Republicans believe that CRT in classrooms will require teachers to remain “politically correct” at all times and that teachers with racist views, disguised as conservatism, will be silenced.
However, banning CRT has much harsher implications. Due to the vague nature of the bills and the distortion of what CRT even is, some worry that just reading novels written by prominent African American figures in the classroom could be banned.
While an argument against CRT is that it will distort the facts of American history, many current textbooks and curriculums across the country whitewash and downplay the impacts of slavery. CRT theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw points to the country’s pattern of vilifying those who acknowledge America’s racist history, and the distortion of these views as being “unpatriotic.” However, teaching elements of CRT in schools would give students a more accurate picture of their country’s history by highlighting traditionally marginalized voices.
As the battle over CRT in classrooms carries on, it is still unclear whether the bans will pass legislation, and to what extent they could impact K-12 education. However, this is also an opportunity for educators to critically reflect on how history is taught. Importantly, this manufactured conflict could spark the actual introduction of CRT in schools and provide students with a more robust curriculum that accurately reflects the history of America.