Speaking Out with Carrie N. Baker: Critical race theory panic: ‘A tried and true playbook move’

  • In this May 25, 2021, file photo, a man holds up a sign against Critical Race Theory during a protest outside a Washoe County School District board meeting in Reno, Nev. Andy Barron/Reno Gazette-Journal via AP

Published: 7/21/2021 5:56:29 PM

The latest demon conjured up by conservative politicians and pundits is “critical race theory” — or CRT as they call it.

Critical race theory was developed by African American legal scholars in the 1970s and 1980s as a framework for examining how racism has shaped U.S. laws and institutions historically and today. At a Faith & Freedom Coalition’s Road to Majority conference in June, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz condemned CRT as “every bit as racist as Klansmen in white sheets.” He meant racism against white people.

Between February and May 2021, Fox News mentioned the phrase “critical race theory” nearly 1,300 times. This coverage characterized CRT as an unpatriotic and divisive form of indoctrination that perpetuates racism against white people and sexism against men. In the first six months of 2021, 26 states have tried to limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism in their classrooms, and 11 states so far have actually passed such laws.

“It would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous,” says law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founder of critical race theory. “This is a mob mentality trying to Willie Hortanize racial justice,” referring to the 1988 Bush campaign ad that blatantly stoked racial fears and stereotypes to win the election.

Crenshaw contests the underlying assumption made by CRT critics that social justice for Black people hurts white people.

“We’ve seen it before. We saw it right after the end of the Civil War when ... President Johnson ... vetoed civil rights saying it was reverse discrimination [against white people] ... We saw it during the civil rights movement when many white people said equality — being forced to serve you — violates my civil rights. So the idea that anti-racism is anti-white is a tried and true playbook move. It used to be part of the neo-nationalist right. It’s now moved to the center of the Republican Party on the heels of this so-called hysteria around critical race theory.”

Former President Donald Trump was the first to enact an anti-CRT ban in September 2020. Shortly after condemning CRT on Twitter, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting diversity and inclusion training for federal workers. In response to the 1619 Project — a New York Times series by Nikole Hannah-Jones about the ongoing impact of slavery and racism on American society — Trump created a 1776 Commission, condemned the 1619 Project and demanded instead what he called “patriotic education.”

“The attack on critical race theory says we should only teach patriotic education, in other words, only white history should be taught,” says Smith College professor Loretta Ross. “The Republicans claim that the purpose of critical race theory is to teach people of color to hate white people. They believe that white people are the real victims — of reverse racism.”

On President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he revoked Trump’s order and disbanded the 1776 Commission, but Sen. Cruz recently introduced a bill into Congress — the END CRT Act — to reinstate the ban. A new group called 1776 Action is pushing “The 1776 Pledge to Save Our Schools,” urging candidates for office to vow to “restore honest, patriotic education that cultivates in our children a profound love for our country.”

Meanwhile, states are banning CRT in public schools and universities. Rhode Island, for example, banned teaching of “divisive concepts” that might make students feel “uncomfortable” based on their race or sex. An Oklahoma law bans teachers in public schools and universities from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

The party denouncing “cancel culture” and the supposed liberal threats to free speech on campus is now trying to shut down discussions about inequality and injustice in American society. The party that ridicules college students by labeling them crybabies and snowflakes is now passing laws to ban people from making them “uncomfortable.”

The new laws are already leading to dismissals of teachers and cancellation of classes.

“A lot of teachers are being penalized ... losing their jobs or experiencing other punitive action for these types of dialogues,” says Jalaya Liles-Dunn, director of Learning for Justice at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors and exposes hate groups and other extremists throughout the United States. “This is censorship,” says Liles-Dunn. “It’s no different than any other dictatorship that is trying to censor a population from knowing the truth so that they can maintain power.”

Republicans are using critical race theory as a dog whistle to mobilize suburban white voters against Democrats. “It’s going to be a big issue in 2022,” says Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who leads the Republican campaign arm.

Just at the point when confederate monuments are finally coming down, conservative politicians are trying to erect barriers to students learning a more accurate and inclusive history of the United States. But bans on Darwin’s theory of evolution from classrooms in the 1930s did not stop scientific inquiry and discovery, and we should not let CRT bans stop important discussions about the history and ongoing impact of racism and sexism in American society today.

Carrie N. Baker is a professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College and a contributing editor to Ms. Magazine.



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