It is just about impossible to overstate how far from actual critical race theory these second-grade-level books are. But for right-wing extremists looking for examples of the boogeyman of “critical race theory,” they’re good enough, and Reuters wasn’t worried about how difficult it would be to overstate that difference, because its report on Steenman and the Williamson County curriculum doesn’t make a serious effort to state the difference at all, despite the fact that millions of dollars in education funding are at stake for Tennessee schools found to have violated the state’s law against the teaching of critical race theory.
“Critical race theory is an advanced concept rarely encountered outside law schools,” Reuters’ Gabriella Borter notes, 16 paragraphs into the article. “Educators say the lessons about race in most U.S. primary and secondary schools involve basic American history about slavery, post-slavery segregation and the long struggle for racial equality,” she continues, while “Critics of the new teaching laws say Republicans are exaggerating the prevalence of critical race theory to use it as a wedge issue to court suburban women, in particular—a group that cares deeply about education and which has shifted Democratic.”
Educators say. Critics say. Are there no ascertainable facts here? You’re really going to spend 1,700 words on a white lady’s crusade against critical race theory and/or a children’s book about Martin Luther King Jr. and not pause to investigate whether the former exists in the second grade classrooms in question, beyond a passing “rarely encountered outside law schools”?
Here’s how Borter describes the books in question: “Written in simple language and framed largely as stories of perseverance, the books show some of the bigotry experienced by their Black protagonists. Images include a period photo in the King book of firemen blasting Black civil rights protesters with the spray of a fire hose, and an illustration in the Bridges story of the child being escorted to school by U.S. Marshals through a crowd of jeering white people.”
You … can’t really tell the story of Ruby Bridges without mentioning the U.S. marshals or why they had to be there. But according to Steenman, it’s divisive. It’s going to make white kids feel bad about themselves. “There’s so much positive that has happened in the 60 years since, but it’s all as if it never happened,” she says.
This is, by the way, happening in a county where, in 2019, two teachers required eighth-graders to imagine themselves as slave-owners and “Create a list of expectations for your family’s slaves.” But sure, the schools should lay off teaching about Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges because so much positive has happened in the 60 years since.
Steenman is using the Tennessee law basically as designed, taking off from the fact that some scholars have argued that racism is embedded in U.S. laws to make the jump to claiming that teaching almost any verifiably true facts about racism in U.S. history is unacceptable because it makes white kids feel bad about themselves. Ruby Bridges had to live it, but now, white kids might feel “discomfort, guilt, or anguish” because they have to read about what white people did to her, and that’s unacceptable.
People like Steenman could hardly make it more clear that what they’re opposed to is not the teaching of critical race theory or any other serious anti-racist teaching. They’re opposed to teaching that racism has ever been a part of U.S. history, full stop. They’re opposed to teaching anything that might make a white child stop and think, full stop. And this is one of the big Republican wedge issues of the moment, right here. This is what they’re trying to use to win in 2022. So really, the more blatantly racist they want to make that crusade, the easier it will be to hold it up to a bright light and show what they’re doing to voters who might have been susceptible to somewhat more veiled racial appeals. But while the overt racism on display here might be better for Democrats at the polls, it’s a disaster for the kids in any state where Republicans have passed their don’t-teach-about-racism laws.
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