Right-Wing Campaign to Block Teaching for Social Justice

Milwaukee, June 12, 2021. By Barbara Miner.

Lawmakers in at least 27 states are attempting to pass legislation that would require teachers to lie to students about the role of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and oppression throughout U.S. history.

In response, the Zinn Education Project launched a pledge to teach truth for educators to sign on line and to make a public commitment at historic sites. Teachers are being harassed and threatened for signing the pledge.

Below we offer articles with analysis of the anti-history education campaign and opportunities to respond.

Background Reading

Right-Wing Legislators Are Trying to Stop Us from Teaching for Racial Justice. We Refuse by Rethinking Schools editors

“The alphabet is abolitionist.”

This powerful statement comes from an 1867 Harper’s Weekly editorial rallying its mostly Northern readers to the fight for robust public education as part of the post-Civil War reconstruction of the South. It rightly rooted this struggle in the violent denial of literacy under the slavocracy. In that context, learning — or teaching others — to read and write was indeed abolitionist.

The political project of white supremacy has always included attacks on education and those attacks continue in 2021. Today’s Republican Party is not so bold as to suggest educators be prohibited from teaching their pupils to read the alphabet, only that we be prohibited from teaching them to read the world. Continue reading.

Why the panic over “critical race theory” is the perfect right-wing troll: Trying to debunk the lies about “critical race theory” is a distraction — but the hysterics have huge implications by Amanda Marcotte, Salon

It is important to note that the fabricated fury over “critical race theory” is a cleverly constructed right-wing troll. Liberals who want to respond with a quick, easily digested rebuttal are instead boxed into a frustrating corner. Because pointing out that critical race theory is not being taught in public schools is a trap, as it could be construed to imply that there’s something wrong with critical race theory. And any straightforward defense of critical race theory implies that schoolchildren are somehow expected to understand graduate school-level academic theories. But in fact, the real issue at hand is that conservatives don’t want white kids to learn even the most basic truths about American history.

Outlawing the Truth: Republicans want students to learn a mythological version of U.S. history because the reality of the past threatens their power in the present by Adam Sanchez, The Progressive

What Republican politicians pushing these bills want taught is the version of history found in the corporate textbooks shaped by Texan conservatives, where the three-fifths clause is characterized as a “compromise” among the founding fathers (about half of whom enslaved people), where Martin Luther King Jr. is played on a loop repeating his famous line about judging people based on “the content of their character,” and where debates about unequal and segregated schools ended decades ago.

This is the educational equivalent of the “Big Lie” that Trump won the election, occasioning and the wave of voter suppression laws promoted by the same political forces.

State GOP lawmakers try to limit teaching about race, racism by Bryan Anderson, Associated Press

Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director of the African American Policy Forum, was among those who helped popularize critical race theory in the 1970s and 1980s as a response to what she and others felt was a lack of progress following passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s.

She said Republicans are twisting the concept to inflame racial tensions and motivate their base of mostly white supporters.

“This is a 2022 strategy to weaponize white insecurity, to mobilize ideas that have been mobilized again and again throughout history, using a concept or set of ideas that they can convince people is the new boogeyman,” Crenshaw said.

The fight to whitewash US history: ‘A drop of poison is all you need’: At least 15 states are trying to ban schools from teaching critical race theory and the 1619 Project. The reactionary movement stretches back to the 1920s and the KKK by Julia Carrie Wong, The Guardian

The laborious project of establishing truth in the face of official lies is one that Americans embraced during the racial reckoning of the summer of 2020, whether it was individuals speaking out about their experiences of racism at work, or institutions acknowledging their own complicity in racial injustice. For a time, it seemed that America was finally ready to tell a more honest, nuanced story of itself, one that acknowledged the blood at the root.

But alongside this reassessment, another American tradition re-emerged: a reactionary movement bent on reasserting a whitewashed American myth. These reactionary forces have taken aim at efforts to tell an honest version of American history and speak openly about racism by proposing laws in statehouses across the country that would ban the teaching of “critical race theory”, the New York Times’s 1619 Project, and, euphemistically, “divisive concepts”.

State Lawmakers Are Trying to Ban Talk About Race in Schools by the ACLU

A nationwide attempt to censor discussions of race in the classroom is underway. These bills don’t just set back progress in addressing systemic issues, they also rob young people of an inclusive education and blatantly suppress speech about race.

What is critical race theory and why did Oklahoma just ban it?: The theory, drawing the ire of the right, helps us understand our past by Kathryn Schumaker, The Washington Post

And so we cannot talk about students’ rights without talking about race — something that CRT facilitates. We know that racial disparities in school punishment are a significant and persistent problem. Critics of the “school-to-prison pipeline” note that students who are suspended are more likely to be arrested and swept into the criminal justice system.

. . . In short, CRT can help inform educators’ understandings of the subjects they teach and of how school policies can disproportionately harm students of color. The true cost of abolishing CRT in schools will be making the pursuit of racial justice in Oklahoma schools that much harder to achieve.

We Need to Teach the Truth About Systemic Racism, Say Educators by Brenda Alvarez in NEA Today

For more than 20 years, Misty Crompton has taught middle school social studies in Derry, N.H., and she prides herself on using a variety of well researched, scholarly documents, primary sources, and other tools to help students learn the history and experiences — whether Black or White, Latino or Asian, Native or newcomer—of those living within the United States.

“It’s called good teaching, to tell truths and have students look at a variety of perspectives and experiences — and a rich landscape of experiences. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda,” Crompton says.

The GOP’s ‘Critical Race Theory’ Obsession: How conservative politicians and pundits became fixated on an academic approach by Adam Harris, The Atlantic

Most legal scholars say that these bills impinge on the right to free speech and will likely be dismissed in court. “Of the legislative language so far, none of the bills are fully constitutional,” Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told me, “and if it isn’t fully constitutional, there’s a word for that: It means it’s unconstitutional.” This does not appear to concern the bills’ sponsors, though. The larger purpose, it seems, is to rally the Republican base—to push back against the recent reexaminations of the role that slavery and segregation have played in American history and the attempts to redress those historical offenses. The shorthand for the Republicans’ bogeyman is an idea that has until now mostly lived in academia: critical race theory.

This Critical Race Theory Panic Is a Chip Off the Old Block: How 20th-century curriculum controversies foreshadowed this summer’s wave of legislation” by Gillian Frank and Adam Laats, Slate

Earlier battles over curriculum provided the template for today’s anti-CRT, anti–1619 Project political campaigns. In the late 1930s, for instance, activists in right-leaning patriotic groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the American Legion warned their fellow Americans about a subversive set of textbooks. The fact that the textbooks written by Columbia professor Harold Rugg were widely popular and had been used for years in schools across America did not matter. The books, conservatives warned, represented an attempt by “radical and communistic textbook writers” to turn American children against America.

“The Tulsa Race Massacre Went Way Beyond ‘Black Wall Street'” by Robin D. G. Kelley, Truthout

Kelley discussed the attack on Critical Race Theory, explaining that “Critical race theory (CRT) exposes the structure through an ‘intersectional’ framework of race, class and gender with the intention of interrogating how power is maintained and inequality reproduced, despite a liberal legal foundation that promises inclusion and ‘equality.'” Read full interview.

Guest Blog: Where Does the Bizarre Hysteria About ‘Critical Race Theory’ Come From? Follow the Money! by Isaac Kamola, Inside Higher Ed

This raises the obvious question: Why are so many members of the 1776 Commission — and the anti-CRT onslaught more generally — so closely tied to Koch network think tanks and political organizations?

Answer: because academic, journalistic and movement efforts to critically interrogate the lasting impact of slavery and American racism fundamentally challenge the free market fundamentalist ideology this network has mass-produced for decades. Koch network libertarians have propagated the fantasy that we all do (or should) live in a radically free market, populated by unraced and ungendered free individuals, all pulling ourselves up by our proverbial bootstraps.

“Secretive ‘dark money’ network launches anti-critical race theory campaign” by Alyce McFadden, Open Secret

A deep-pocketed “dark money” group is spending “well over $1 million” on an ad campaign against the inclusion of racial justice topics in K-12 curricula.  The Concord Fund is a conservative dark money group better known as the Judicial Crisis Network. . . . The Concord Fund’s latest identity comes in the midst of the GOP’s furor over critical race theory, a much-discussed but little-understood academic theory that suggests the legacies of slavery and segregation influence institutional and systemic racism today. Some Republican lawmakers have said critical race theory is “anti-American” and promotes discrimination against white people.

The debate over how school children are taught about slavery, civil rights and racism has become the most recent battle in the culture war between conservatives and progressives. And Republicans are gearing up to use the controversy as political fodder during the 2022 midterms.

As states place new limits on class discussions of race, research suggests they benefit students by Matt Barnum, Chalk Beat

A handful of recent studies have found that students are more engaged in school after taking classes that frankly discuss racism and bigotry — just as some educators like Mason fear such discussions could be threatened by a wave of broad state laws designed to limit the teaching of what some are calling “critical race theory.”

Graphics

Here are graphic comparisons of education with and without Critical Race Theory, posted with permission of cartoonist Benjamin Slyngstad.

Bills and Other Measures

Map: Where Critical Race Theory Is Under Attack from Education Week

Maps on legislation, for and against anti-racist education from Chalkbeat

Attacks on Teachers

The rightwing website The Daily Wire listed the names of those who signed the Zinn Education Project’s Pledge to Teach Truth and the communities in which they work. The Daily Wire’s goals are clear: to incite harassment and spread fear. Although we wish we could simply write off The Daily Wire’s hit piece as beneath contempt, we know it is already having negative consequences for many teachers, and therefore we offer a few possible responses to the accusation that teachers who signed the pledge are “flouting the law.”

  • Educators are not pledging to flout the law; they are pledging to teach the truth, which cannot be done if these laws are followed.
  • Educators have an ethical responsibility to tell the truth and these laws curtail their ability to do that.
  • By banning educators from teaching about the truth about U.S. history, lawmakers seek to deny young people the right to understand — and so effectively act upon — the world they’ve been bequeathed. These bills are an attack on democracy itself.
  • The burden of responsibility is not with educators who want only to be able to teach an honest account of U.S. history, but with the legislators who are making it illegal for them to do so. This legislation is designed to criminalize teachers, schools, and school districts.
  • Laws are not by definition just; and there is a long and storied history in the United States of defying unjust laws: from the Underground Railroad to the sit-ins. Our conviction is that these anti-education bills are unjust laws.

The presidents of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have committed to defend teachers in the face of these attacks. The NEA offers this Know Your Rights guide. The Zinn Education Project team is working with the teacher unions and other educational justice partners to support teachers who signed the pledge and are under attack.

Pledge at an Historic Site

We invite you to take a photo with your pledge at an historic site and share it on social media with #TeachTruth. Read how.


Teach Truth Syllabus

To make visible the teaching that the right is trying to suppress, here is a collection of lessons for a #TeachTruthSyllabus.

Share a story, question, or resource from your classroom.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *