Dear Commons Community,
The New York Times has a featured article this morning examining the battle going on in America over the teaching of critical race theory. From school boards to the halls of Congress, Republicans are mounting an energetic campaign aiming to dictate how historical and modern racism in America are taught, meeting pushback from Democrats and educators in a politically thorny clash that has deep ramifications for how children learn about their country.
Republicans have focused their attacks on the influence of “critical race theory,” a graduate school framework that has found its way into K-12 public education. The concept argues that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions, and that the legacies of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow still create an uneven playing field for Black people and other people of color.
Many conservatives portray critical race theory and invocations of systemic racism as a gauntlet thrown down to accuse white Americans of being individually racist. Republicans accuse the left of trying to indoctrinate children with the belief that the United States is inherently wicked.
Democrats are conflicted. Some worry that arguing America is racist to the root — a view embraced by elements of the party’s progressive wing — contradicts the opinion of a majority of voters and is handing Republicans an issue to use as a political cudgel. But large parts of the party’s base, including many voters of color, support more discussion in schools about racism’s reach, and believe that such conversations are an educational imperative that should stand apart from partisan politics. As reported in the article:
“History is already undertaught — we’ve been undereducated, and these laws are going to get us even less educated,” said Prudence L. Carter, the dean of the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. Attempts to suppress what is still a nascent movement to teach young Americans more explicitly about racist public policy, like redlining or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, amount to “a gaslighting of history,” she said, adding, “It’s a form of denialism.”
The debate over the real or perceived influence of critical race theory — not just in schools but also in corporate, government and media settings — comes as both parties increasingly make issues of identity central to politics. And it accelerated during the presidency of Donald J. Trump, when discussions over racism in the country were supercharged by his racist comments and by a wave of protests last year over police killings of Black people.
In Tulsa on Tuesday, Mr. Biden said the killing of Black citizens by a white mob a century ago had been driven by racism that became “embedded systematically and systemically in our laws and our culture.” America, he said, can’t pretend “it doesn’t impact us today.” In response, he announced policies to narrow the racial wealth gap by aiding Black home buyers and small-business owners.
Some of the discussion about education has been fueled by the 1619 Project, developed by The New York Times Magazine, which argues that “the country’s very origin” traces to when the first ship carrying enslaved people touched Virginia’s shore that year. “Out of slavery — and the anti-black racism it required — grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional,” the magazine’s editor wrote.
Educators have embraced curriculums created along with the project, responding to a changing nation in which a majority of public-school students are now nonwhite, but the teaching force remains nearly 80 percent white.
Republican pushback has been intense. Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the G.O.P. leader, said recently that he disagreed that 1619 was important in U.S. history. He and other Republican senators are pushing the Biden administration to drop efforts by the Education Department to prioritize history courses that emphasize “systemic marginalization” of peoples.
In Ohio, Republicans in the General Assembly introduced a bill last week to ban teaching that any individual is “inherently racist,” that any individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by the same race or sex,” or that the advent of slavery “constitutes the true founding” of the United States.
“Critical race theory is a dangerous and flat-out wrong theory,” State Representative Don Jones, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a statement. “Students should not be asked to ‘examine their whiteness’ or ‘check their privilege.’”
Mr. Jones, in an interview, could not cite any examples of such teaching taking place now in Ohio. He said his bill was a response to voter concerns.
Although parents have appeared before school boards in Ohio and elsewhere to object to critical race theory, calling it “Marxist,” many school administrators vehemently deny that they are teaching the subject, or are being influenced by it. They say that much of what conservatives object to amounts to little more than more frequent and frank discussions of subjects like slavery. Parents are also pushing back against the loosely related trend of anti-bias training for students and staff members, which has led to dust-ups across the country…
…Republicans’ attacks on critical race theory are in sync with the party’s broad strategy to run on culture-war issues in the 2022 midterm elections, rather than campaigning head-on against Mr. Biden’s economic agenda — which has proved popular with voters — as the country emerges from the coronavirus pandemic.
Because the nation’s three million public-school teachers have a great deal of autonomy over what happens in classrooms, legislation will most likely be ineffective in controlling how children are exposed to concepts of race and racism, said Robert Pondiscio, an education expert who in June will join the center-right American Enterprise Institute, a think tank.
Still, he said, the controversy over critical race theory serves a purpose in warning educators to tread carefully on a divisive subject. “People have strong feelings about the degree to which race should be central to a kid’s educational experience,” he said.
While few K-12 educators use the term “critical race theory,” discussions of systemic racism have become more common in American schools in recent years, particularly in liberal areas.
Historically, curricular changes have often drawn backlashes, said Albert S. Broussard, a historian at Texas A&M University and an author of middle and high school American history textbooks. “It’s what we as historians have seen throughout African-American history when whites — particularly conservatives — feel they have lost control,” he said.
Conservatives and even some liberals have said that discussions of race are crowding out the traditional curriculum and are encouraging students and teachers to see themselves less as individuals and more as members of identity groups….
…..Some Democratic strategists said the issue was a political liability for their party. Ruy Teixeira, a longtime political scientist and the co-editor of a Substack newsletter called The Liberal Patriot, recently wrote, “The steady march of ‘anti-racist’ ideology” into school curriculums “will generate a backlash among normie parents.”
…A parent group began a petition drive in April to recall six of nine school board members. The effort is led by Ian Prior, a former political appointee in the Trump administration, who created a political action committee that he said had raised about $50,000 in small donations. It gathered signatures in May at the Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va.
“What we’re seeing is a focus less on individuals, who they are and their unique experiences, but more about identity groups and putting everybody into an identity box,” Mr. Prior said.
The district’s interim superintendent, Scott A. Ziegler, denied that critical race theory was part of the curriculum or teacher training.
“Unfortunately, our efforts to provide an excellent education in a place of caring, safety and affirmation for our students has gotten swept away in a controversy about critical race theory,” he said. “We are not teaching critical race theory. We are not indoctrinating students or staff into critical race theory.”
“We are making a better environment for our students.”