Virginia’s new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin last week issued an executive order banning “divisive concepts,” including “critical race theory,” from the state’s public schools. Mississippi, too, joined the growing roster of states passing de facto anti-CRT legislation, following a walkout by Black members of the state Senate. And there were reports on initiatives in at least a dozen states to require schools to post all teaching materials online, sometimes with an option for parents to withdraw children from certain classes.
These GOP-led efforts, which include moves to banish undesirable books on race and gender from school libraries and reading lists, are widely-decried as an assault on intellectual freedom and a thinly veiled racist backlash. Critics on the left say the anti-CRT panic is absurd—critical race theory, which analyzes the way racism is embedded in social structures, is taught mostly in higher education, especially in law schools—and also a cynical strategy to target all discussion of racism in K-12 education.
Prominent progressives have urged the liberal writers and academics who signed the 2020 “Harper’s Letter”—which was critical of intellectual intolerance on the left—to engage in “public reflection” over their supposed role in fueling anti-CRT measures. (Many of the signers have, in fact, spoken out against these laws, but their detractors want more self-criticism.)
Meanwhile, any suggestion that the anti-CRT revolt may reflect some legitimate concerns about the way anti-racism is taught in public schools is likely to get you accused of right-wing stoogery—or, at best, disingenuous centrist “both-sidesism.”
But what if this is a case where each side has both valid gripes and willful blind spots?
There is no question the anti-CRT backlash has been crude, filled with hyperbole—such as claims by anti-woke activists that racial equity initiatives in schools are a cover for “atheist Marxist ideology” or “communist values”—and often conducted in bad faith. The most prominent figure in this crusade is Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, who has freely admitted to a strategy of tying various “cultural insanities” to the CRT “brand” and even tried to blame wokeness for the U.S.’s disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.
While some anti-CRT legislation has been misrepresented in news reports, there is little doubt that most of these bills—which include bans on teaching The New York Times’ 1619 Project—are either aggressively illiberal or dangerously vague.
Even ostensibly straightforward “transparency” bills supported by the anti-CRT movement are a tough call, since they could tie up teachers in endless online posting of classroom readings, subject to a heckler’s veto by a loud minority of parents. (At the same time, there’s a certain irony in the fact that the American Civil Liberties Union, which previously supported making curriculum materials publicly available as a means of ferreting out socially conservative or religious influences in public schools, now decries such measures as “thinly veiled attempts at chilling teachers and students from learning and talking about race and gender.”)
And, quite often, anti-CRT activism sounds like a right-wing version of the “safe space” mentality conservatives have long ridiculed among the “snowflake” left.
For example, anti-CRT parents in a Tennessee school district objected to the book Ruby Bridges Goes to School, written by the famed activist Ruby Bridges about her experience as the first Black child at a previously all-white New Orleans school in 1960—apparently because a reference to a “large crowd of angry white people who didn't want Black children in a white school” was deemed too harsh.
It’s almost as if some conservatives are intent on living up to the “white fragility” stereotype of white people who feel threatened by any discussion of racism in America.
And yet it’s no less true that the anti-CRT backlash has exposed some pretty toxic elements—at least if you believe that awareness of racism, historical or ongoing, should not include essentializing individuals on the basis of race.
The motives and methods of right-wing culture warriors like Rufo undoubtedly warrant skepticism. Nonetheless, Rufo’s reports—usually informed by verifiably legitimate leaked documents, and even discounting his uncharitable spin on those materials—have also exposed real and troubling practices.
At an elementary school in Cupertino, California, a 2020 classroom exercise asked third-graders to read about identity and power, map their various “social identities,” and write short essays on two of their identities that “hold power and privilege” and two that do not. While the school principal told the Washington Post that the exercise was canceled before it began, due to complaints from mostly Asian American parents who saw the slides, the superintendent later confirmed that it was conducted once before the parental rebellion took place.
Or take the picture book Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness by Anastasia Higginbotham, which has been reportedly used in K-5 reading in more than 30 school districts. This book not only tells kids that their relatives who claim they “don’t see color” are the bad guys but presents “whiteness” as a literal devil who offers you “stolen riches” and “special favors” but gets to claim “your soul” and “to mess endlessly with the lives of … fellow humans of color.” (While the book notes that “whiteness” is not the same as being white, this fine distinction is often hard enough for adults to parse, let alone 7-year-olds.)
There are plenty of other examples of anti-racist school lessons that veer into blaming and shaming. Last year, a high school assignment on “white privilege and whiteness” in Mancelona, a lower-middle-class community in Michigan, asked students to ponder “everything you may be doing to promote/maintain” white privilege and informed them that “the world is set up for [white people’s] convenience.” Those on the left who think such lessons are appropriate should openly explain their position instead of taking refuge in denial and tarring all dissent as bad faith.
Whether or not this kind of anti-racist education can be equated with “critical race theory,” it’s indisputable that public schools have been heavily influenced by teacher education programs that embrace “social justice” as a key mission. And it’s plenty relevant that the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, last summer passed a “business item” to oppose CRT bans which explicitly endorsed critical race theory as one of the “tools” needed for “racial honesty in education.” (Later, apparently fearing negative attention, the NEA scrubbed all its “business items” from its site.)
Many progressives would no doubt assert that teaching rooted in such activism simply conveys the truth about privilege and “systemic racism.” But despite the continuing reality of racism and race-based disadvantage, America in 2021 is far more diverse and complex than this perspective allows.
In Not My Idea, for instance, Blacks exist only as victims of oppression and whites as privileged perpetrators or enablers. (Only anti-racist activists of any race are allowed to exist outside this crude dichotomy.)
So yes, there are at least two sides to this issue.
Older kids should certainly be expected to discuss current issues and controversies as part of their schooling. But these discussions should include a variety of perspectives on such issues as racism, oppression and privilege—rather than a single anti-racist orthodoxy that brooks no dissent.
Likewise, the teaching of American history should allow for multiple perspectives as long as they are backed by respected scholarship (which means both the 1619 Project and its critics on both the left and right).
If we hope to make any progress, we need a more honest dialogue that allows “divisive concepts”—such as America’s tragic history of slavery and institutionalized racism—to be honestly explored without enshrining a single viewpoint and mandating either activism or penitence.
And mainstream journalists could help bridge the divide by more accurately reporting on the conflicts over schools, instead of leaving it to Rufo or Fox News to cover progressive overreach and spin it as creeping Marxism.
There’s a conversation to be had here, but it can’t happen with speech bans or rigidly orthodox education.