Should we teach our kids about the lasting impacts of slavery? In a country built on slave labor, this may seem an obvious question with an obvious answer, especially after the widespread impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. However, a USA Today poll showed that only 37 percent of white parents, compared to 83 percent of Black parents, want their children to be taught critical race theory (CRT). Bills threatening CRT’s instruction have emerged in both traditionally conservative and progressive areas, revealing the extent to which white anger and discomfort dictate national policies and permeate through every thread of society. Despite being painted as a largely southern issue, opposition to CRT has enabled white people in progressive states like Rhode Island, and indeed across the United States, to endorse the white-centric status quo that has been taught in southern schools for decades.
The debate over CRT has become a hot-button topic in recent years, even though it emerged as an academic theory over 40 years ago. CRT, which is the idea that race is a social construct and that racism is built into systemic structures of law and government policies in the United States, has to date existed largely in collegiate and doctoral settings. As a method of teaching US history, CRT has never been prominent in public school curricula, nor has it been extensively studied at the undergraduate level, showing that the political fights over CRT are not a response to what kids are actually learning in school.
Republican criticism of CRT—which most teachers say they have never taught in their classrooms—has come increasingly under is a political tactic that aims to increase support from a base of white parents and voters who fear that the Black Lives Matter movement will disrupt the current racialized system. White parents a large part of the Republican base: In 2019, the Pew Research Center found that registered Republicans were 81 percent white, compared to 59 percent for registered Democrats. Given that Republicans are cracking down on public school curricula that are not very diverse or radical to begin with, their efforts against CRT appear mostly performative. For example, Texas passed SB3—a bill that removed instruction about Native American history, women’s suffrage, the Ku Klux Klan, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and many more documents by people of color—showing that legislators are making US history curricula even more Eurocentric. Texas is only one representation of a more general style of teaching history in the South. Excluding of documents such as the Emancipation Proclamation and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is not unprecedented, but rather a continuation of the way that slavery and the Civil War have been taught in southern public schools for decades.
Textbook publisher McGraw Hill recently came under scrutiny for its descriptions of slaves and the institution of slavery in textbooks that were distributed to five million students. The publishers used passive voice to distance slave owners from their atrocious actions, and used active voice when describing slaves dancing, singing spirituals, or contributing to the South’s agricultural economy. The textbooks also mask the realities of slavery and endorse white saviorism by using uplifting descriptions, like “some slaves reported that their masters treated them kindly. To protect their investment, some slaveholders provided adequate food and clothing for their slaves.” Another line that stood out came from McGraw Hill’s description of the Atlantic Slave Trade, which said that the trade brought “millions of workers” to plantations in the Southern United States. Nonetheless, these descriptions follow the guidelines of the highly politicized and criticized Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS). These Texas curriculum standards are decided upon by a group of scholars from across the state and voted on by the school board, which is composed of 10 Republicans and five Democrats. This uneven distribution of conservative and progressive viewpoints results in skewed standards of education that eliminate important parts of history. While the publishers agreed to revise the textbook and send temporary stickers to cover the word “workers,” this minimization of the horrors of the American slave trade has dangerous repercussions, as that the legacies of slavery clearly persist in the United States.
Texas isn’t alone in creating anti-CRT bills. More progressive states have also recently introduced legislation, showing that this isn’t strictly a southern problem. In Rhode Island, Representative Patricia Morgan introduced HB 6070 before the House Education Committee, which would “[prohibit] teaching divisive concepts.” It would also “prohibit making any individual feel discomfort, guilty, anguish or any distress on account of their race or sex.” These efforts to avoid uncomfortable conversations will ultimately stifle meaningful discussion regarding race and limit the chances that students have to engage with anti-racist political advocacy.
Texas is one of five states since 2019 that have passed bills banning the teaching of CRT in schools, the others being Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. 22 Republican-controlled legislatures have proposed bills that would prohibit the teaching of white privilege and racial equity, legislation that opponents fear would block any anti-racist efforts made by schools to teach the impacts of US history. The New York Times’ 1619 Project in particular has received targeted backlash, because it argues that the beginning of US history aligns with the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619 rather than with the Declaration of Independence or the signing of the Constitution. While most media discourse has largely painted Texas and the South as the base of opposition towards CRT, in reality, harmful discourse about the basic tenets of American history has spread across the nation, where it has implications for how all students learn.
Turning CRT into a culture war also has implications for how parents view public school curricula. According to a USA Today poll that surveyed 2,010 adults, fewer than four in 10 Republican parents want their children to learn about the lasting effects of slavery in schools, compared to more than eight in 10 Democratic parents. While CRT is indeed a hot-button issue, many people do not actually understand what they are campaigning against—besides a vague concept of a “ridiculous leftist narrative,” as Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick said in a statement about SB3, the bill banning CRT. It seems like conservatives have purposely defined CRT loosely so that it can stretch to include any perceived attempt to teach children about racism or white privilege.
While only 49 percent of adults surveyed by USA Today supported teaching CRT, 63 percent of those same adults supported teaching about the ongoing effects of slavery and racism in the US. The polls ask similar questions, but CRT elaborates upon the ongoing effects of slavery by viewing institutions as inherently racist. Thus, the visceral reactions to the words “critical race theory” are part of a larger moral panic that has seized the Republican Party and informed their electoral strategy, which aims to exacerbate fears surrounding race, sex, gender, and immigration.
In response to the Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, CRT went from relative obscurity to becoming a topic that consumed conservative media. The conservative media’s use of CRT is a distraction from any actual discussion about race or police brutality to prevent systemic change that would hurt the GOP. The creation of anti-CRT bills across the country is a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement and its momentum towards upsetting an existing racial hierarchy. Despite being painted as a uniquely southern problem that progressive Americans need not concern themselves with, the attacks on CRT and the teaching of anti-racism in schools have proliferated nationwide, with harmful consequences.
Illustration by Nicholas Edwards