A Republican campaign against an imaginary enemy continues to gain steam. In the past week, both Texas and Florida have banned the teaching of critical race theory in their schools, while Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has spoken out against it at length.
Critical race theory is a graduate-level academic theory not taught to children. What these Republicans are really objecting to and banning is any teaching about race that makes white Republicans uncomfortable. If there’s one specific thing being banned here, it is The 1619 Project, the curriculum based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning longform journalism project from The New York Times reframing U.S. history to more fully consider the consequences of slavery and include the contributions of Black Americans.
But really, these laws are part of a broader attempt to keep the teaching of history from challenging white supremacy and, most of all, to make white voters feel like Republicans are the only people looking out for them. Protecting them from being sent to reeducation camps, even.
The new Texas law doesn't even mention critical race theory, though it does specifically ban the teaching of The 1619 Project. It forbids “deference to any one perspective” on any “particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” that is taught in schools, which Texas Democrats pointed out would be … difficult and problematic in cases like the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The law will “stifle the teaching of huge, important facts about history, which still affect much of our life today,” according to the Texas State Teachers Association. A Republican member of the State Board of Education was even more blunt: “We’ve got a piece-of-junk legislation for us to work with.”
A rule passed by the Florida Board of Education last week similarly did not initially mention critical race theory, though that was added in an amendment—comparing it to Holocaust denial as an unacceptable thing to teach. That rule prohibits teachers from attempting “to indoctrinate or persuade students to a particular point of view.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s Yael Hershfield shredded the rule, noting, “The rule requires that public schools provide factual and objective instruction on state-mandated subjects including, African American history, slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction, the Holocaust, and the civil rights movement. Yet, it broadly prohibits any instruction about racism being ‘embedded in American society and its legal systems.”
That could have implications for how the Holocaust specifically is taught, Hershfield said. The wording of the rule “could very well prohibit teaching why the Nazis used Jim Crow statutes as a model for their infamous Nuremberg Race Laws. A core tenet of teaching history is examining why events occurred for the purpose of developing critical thinking skills that can help ensure historical wrongs are not repeated in the present day or the future. The rule appears to contradict that essential value, which is a disservice to our children and society as a whole.”
Gov. Ron DeSantis is using the campaign against the imaginary teaching of critical race theory as the tentpole for an effort to take over school boards.
In Nebraska, there has not (yet) been any effort to legislate against the imaginary teaching of critical race theory, but Ricketts addressed the issue on a call-in radio show, in terms making clear that he didn’t know what critical race theory is. Later, asked by the Omaha World-Herald what he thinks it is, he sent in a definition from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and called the theory “an attack on our country’s core values.”
”The American founding is based on the idea ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,’” Ricketts continued. “All men,” huh? Interesting reference when we’re literally talking about how slavery and Jim Crow are taught in the schools.
The state policies against critical race theory are being driven in large part by a relentless campaign from Fox News and others in the right-wing media, with the full Republican astroturf operation swinging into gear, featuring one after another “concerned parent” who turns out to be a Republican operative showing up on Fox News.
President Joe Biden is not making a good villain for Republican efforts to win in 2022, so they’re turning to racism—frightening white people into believing that an education that grapples with the racial realities of U.S. history and current events will inevitably lead to white people being targeted and oppressed, and, perhaps worst of all, feeling bad about themselves. The fact that there’s no alternative vision here, that race is presented as something one group must lose and one group must win, is significant to understanding how these people see the current U.S. racial order. They believe there are winners and losers right now. They just don’t want anything about that to change.