The Far-Right War on History, Education and Thinking
Anyone wondering why critical race theory has prompted a mad dash among right wing legislators and school boards to extinguish it need only look at similar obsessions that have made U.S. democracy an endangered species.
Texas, predictably, is jumping on the bandwagon with the hard right Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick ranting claiming that Texas (yes, apparently all state residents) “rejects critical race theory and other so called ‘woke’ philosophies that maintain one race of sex is superior to another race or sex…” — a contrived fantasy bearing no relation to what CRT teaches.
Hardly to be outdone, in the past few weeks, Republican dominated states have been in a frantic rush to pass bills outlawing CRT in Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Utah. Bills are also on the docket in Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and other states.
Upon signing Idaho’s bill, Gov. Brad Little disingenuously said it would bar teachers from “indoctrinating” students from claiming that members of any race, sex, religion, ethnicity or national origin are inferior or superior to other groups — again a dishonest demonization of what they are attacking.
The fanatical drive to eradicate a deeper analysis of U.S. history and the ability to engage in critical thinking stems from the same ideology that is at the heart of a similar flurry of extremist legislation from coast to coast to restrict the right to vote, criminalize public protest, block the ability of local jurisdictions to reduce the disproportionate funding of policing, and many other public policies.
It’s the surest sign of both the depth of structural racism that stains every segment of our society, and how much the dangerous, toxic legacy of four years of Trump and Trumpism has inflamed, abetted, and legitimized white supremacist ideology, and increasingly dominates the behavior of the Republican Party, right wing media, and its most devoted base.
While the current obsession with CRT and wave of legislation corresponds with Trump’s push last year to ban “spending related to any training on critical race theory,” the right wing reaction has a familiar strain.
There’s a direct link to the fights over ethnic studies programs that emerged across the U.S. starting in the late 1960s, inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and liberation struggles, that included the largest student strike in U.S. history of 1968–69 to establish an Ethnic Studies Department at San Francisco State University.
That movement led to the spread of programs not only in colleges and universities across the U.S, but also in many K-12 curricula, driven, as educator, activist Angela Davis notes, by Black, Indigenous People of Color students demanding education relevant to their families and communities and the “capacity to think and act critically in relation to the conditions reflecting our collective lives.” A 2010 Arizona law to ban ethnic studies illustrates the extreme fear and attacks ethnic studies have stirred.
CRT, writes David Theo Goldberg in Boston Review, “functions for the right today primarily as an empty signifier for any talk of race and racism at all, a catch-all specter lumping together ‘multiculturalism,’ ‘wokeism,’ ‘anti-racism,’ and ‘identity politics’ — or indeed any suggestion 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. They are simply against any talk, discussion, mention, analysis, or intimation of race — except to say we shouldn’t talk about it.”
The goal, Goldberg added, is also “to rewrite history in its effort to neoliberalize racism: to reduce it to a matter of personal beliefs and interpersonal prejudice” rather than the ongoing legacy of centuries of structural racism.
It’s a view that is also based on what racial justice, labor activist Bill Fletcher says harkens back to revanchism, a desire to return to a “white republic” of the days of slavery, the counter revolution to Reconstruction and the repression of Jim Crow laws, and a “particular form of revenge” for what they believe are lost political power and privileges in racial and gender roles, and “they want it back.”
Fox’s Tucker Carlson, as usual, laid bare a key racist political goal, claiming that Democrats want to “replace” replace white, conservative voters with “more obedient voters from the Third World,” to “dilute” the power of U.S. “Demographic change is the key to the Democratic Party’s political ambitions. To win and maintain power, Democrats plan to change the population of the country.” Subtlety is about as foreign to Carlson as it is to Trump or David Duke.
CRT as a scholarly practice can be traced to at least to the writings of W.E.B. DuBois, especially his 1935 classic “Black Reconstruction.” As a formal academic theory, it dates to a movement of educators from the 1970s and beyond, including Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw, Patricia Williams Richard Delgado and many others, who sought to situate the persistence of structural racism in legal and political practice and its origins in U.S. history.
Crenshaw explained it to CNN’s Faith Karimi, as “an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.” And how current inequities are “not simply a matter of prejudice,” but “structured disadvantages that stretched across American society.”
In an extensive review of what he describes as the racialized educational background of leading opponents of CRT, Michael Harriot, writes in The Root: “This is why they oppose expanding the historiography of our national story. American schools have never taught a version of history that wasn’t racialized. But, apparently, it’s perfectly fine if the racial narrative skews toward whiteness.”
Just as there has been sustained activism by students and educators, particularly in working class communities of color, to protect multi-disciplinary ethnic studies programs that continue to be part of an overall struggle not just for knowledge but also for social, economic and political justice in a multi-racial democracy, the current debate is also about the future of this nation.
At stake is whether we can continue to have the scaffolding of a democracy, and strive to reach a more egalitarian society, not one that is premised on a white supremacist dream of entrenching dictatorial power over who can hold elected office, what is taught in schools, and what views are may be circulated in culture and media.
It means acknowledging and teaching that structural racism is baked into U.S. history and was the ideological framework that justified settler colonialism that committed genocide against Indigenous peoples who had lived here for centuries, and the chattel slavery that enriched both white plantation owners in the South and ship builders, bankers, insurance brokers, and manufacturers who profited off slavery in the North.
That is what built the wealth of the U.S., and the perpetuation of that racism in politics, economic opportunity, the legal system, health care, housing, education, and the failure to provide restitution to the descendants of those harmed by racism that are the source of racial disparities that continue to persist today.
Knowing the real history of the U.S., is essential to advancing the struggles of today to achieve a more just society for all the multi-racial, multi-ethnic people who live in a nation becoming more diverse every day. It undermines the rationalizations for suppressing the rights to vote and protest, and for protecting political and economic power for an entrenched white and corporate elite that continues to profit off structural racism today.