The Attack on "Critical Race Theory" in America
The U.S. is divided.
It is a nation wildly divided on nearly all political fronts. Most intimate to me is the eruptive debate surrounding education. Last year, conservative activist Christopher Rufo took to using the term “critical race theory” to oppose anti-racist education efforts in the public school system. This can be marked as an inciting incident, as the conservative community has raised the alarm that critical race theory is being used to teach children that “they are racist, and that the U.S. is a racist country with irredeemable roots.”
The opposition to these sentiments are the forces pushing forward progressive curriculums that actively encourage classroom discussions centering around discrimination as well as general diversity and inclusion initiatives.
With such heated debates over the nature of the American education system, lawmakers are taking an active cue as discussions centering around this “critical race theory” and its place in the classroom are occurring in multiple states. It is necessary to objectively examine these pieces of legislation and determine what they could mean for the future of American education, and by proxy, America.
For the purpose of brevity and clarity, this article will focus almost exclusively on dissecting Texas’ House Bill 3979, signed in June by Governor Greg Abbott and to be put into action in September. The reasoning behind examining HB 3979 is that it is more pertinent to my experiences as a Texan youth who spent a large portion of their academic career in the Texas public school system. Bear in mind, however, that this restructuring of education is not an isolated incident. In some states, it has already been implemented.
A Misunderstanding of CRT
Critical race theory (CRT) is a modern academic concept whose main tenant proposes racism as a social, collective concept - one embedded into the legal and principle infrastructures of society rather than something simply based on individual bias. It is not a newfangled discipline, as the idea emerged in the 1980s and there decades worth of commentary and essays on the subject. In essence, the theory points to racism as a systemic issue.
However, the broad rhetoric used in the legal landscape, specifically in HB 3979, vastly applies to anything pertaining or in reference to “controversial” current events. It is worth noting that this bill aims to limit discussions beyond race, extending to sex. Other states, such as New Hampshire, are even more inclusive in their anti-CRT policies, as HB2 limits classroom rhetoric concerning race, sex, creed, familial status, and more. Ultimately, these actions contribute to the reduction of academic commentary on both social justice and current events.
A major critique of CRT, as reflected in HB 3979 and house bills of a similar nature, is that CRT teaches racial inferiority or superiority. Educators cannot push forward the narrative that one race is “inherently superior to another”. However, this is an unfounded concern as CRT doesn’t attempt to teach racial inferiority or superiority, it simply addresses what perpetuates racism. Clearly, the aim of these bills isn’t to directly discourage the teachings and tenants of the traditional concepts of CRT, but rather to discourage discussions on how discrimination occurs in the modern day.
This misuse of the concept invalidates claims made to ban it. For example, Gov. Abbott’s call to “abolish critical race theory in Texas.” CRT is not taught in the classroom, so as it stands, this legislature is less an attack on CRT and more one on social justice as a whole. Idaho’s HB 377 possesses the same discrepancy, outlining CRT as part of an overarching group of ideas focused on discrimination that are not to be touched upon in the classroom. Conversely, Florida’s banning of CRT is more literal, but also more vague - and suffers the same issue of combating an imaginary problem. K-12 schools simply do not teach advanced modern theory in their social studies classes, and even if they did: educating students on concepts does not mean directly sponsoring said concepts. The purpose of schools is not to indoctrinate. It is to educate.
This is not a minute difference. This marks a dramatic shift from the banning of a singular academic concept to the banning of a very wide body of content and traditional learning standards that are often implemented in social studies curriculum. As students, we participate in socratic seminars, peer discussions, and research papers that require awareness of modern society or the ability to link class concepts with what we know about the world around us. In history lessons that focus on discrimination and social injustice, that ability is often utilized in class. HB 3979 and its adjacent bills aim to eradicate those essential academic skills.
Harmful Messages & Reductive Education
What is interesting about these bills is that they aim to reduce discrimination by actively ignoring it and its implications. Many of the off-limits teaching items in HB 3979 are warranted - no teacher should encourage the idea that one race or sex is superior to another, nor that one has intrinsic morals. However, the item that stands out specifically is the final one in this list: meritocracy or generally positive traits stereotypically held by certain demographics cannot be called racist or oppressive. This is odd because meritocracy does hold historic precedence in the context that it was used to discriminate against people (e.g. in the case of the Model Minority Myth), and it is still the focus of contemporary discussions, even in casual circles. If this bill passes, then such discussions, mainly the historic and objective facts of the matter, would never arise in a youth’s academic education. Therefore, there is a less astute understanding of how that youth’s society is the way it is.
This is indicative of a larger failure with anti-CRT bills. Education is a tool that equips students with resources about the world around them, which in turn, will help them form the future. By ridding important, controversial aspects relating to current events, as well as the historic contexts from which such controversy is born from the curriculum, this effectively leaves a student with general ignorance pertaining to the social climates of their world.
What’s more is that the idea of ambivalence can work to corrupt certain morals. HB 3979 emphasizes that discussions of controversial current events must be discussed with a variety of perspectives, which is already a well-enforced and widely accepted teaching standard. However, controversial events that involve discrimination are at a risk of being skewed to promote hatred rather than to actively decry it. Take George Floyd’s death. Would including a wide berth of perspectives on it mean proposing the idea that his drug abuse warranted his treatment, as Derek Chauvin’s defense team suggested? It is, after all, a differing perspective of a situation in which a man was terribly mistreated and brutally murdered by police authorities.
The primary concern held by those opposed to CRT is that it isn’t patriotic. It paints America as irredeemable or corrupt. While these ideas could hold true in certain areas, at the end of the day, CRT is not a belief set. It is a theory, and one that is worth hearing, even in simple, broad strokes, because being a student means learning. What these bills encourage, ultimately, is ignorance.
Perhaps the most harrowingly ironic twist is that this blatant attack on CRT inarguably proves it. By suppressing discussions on dicrimination and refusing to accept it in these spaces operated and sponsored by the government, these bills in effect become vehicles from which systemic racism is perpetuated. For racism’s most common form is not, in fact, outwardly malicious behavior, but rather, willing ignorance.
Ignorance is bliss, but one man’s bliss could very well be another man’s curse.
Editors: Amber T., Evie F., Sarah H., Rachel C., Raniyah B.,