Yale professor and author of “How Fascism Works?” Jason Stanley tweeted, “History shows that propaganda can make a dominant group mad with panic and fear about the threat of a small minority subjugating them, supposedly by seizing the institutions and doing things to their children.”
I’ve been thinking about this tweet a lot lately, as I watch the ongoing moral panic across the country about critical race theory (CRT). Florida banned CRT and the 1619 Project in teaching history. Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a “1836 Project” bill to promote “patriotic education” and the state’s exceptionalism. Idaho banned CRT in schools and set up an “indoctrination” task force while, according to the AP, a conservative group in Nevada suggested teachers wear body cameras to ensure they aren’t teaching CRT. Aside from how these bans are affronts to academic freedom and free speech, CRT is by no stretch of the imagination taught widely in grade school or high school.
This panic is the product of conservative media scaring by parents over what their kids are learning in school about U.S. history. The most central and most controversial claim is that CRT teaches self-hate to white kids. Though I disagree with this idea on its face, I also don’t think the recounting of history is inherently supposed to make anyone feel good. That isn’t the mission of education, nor does it promote critical thinking. But what frustrates me the most about all of this is I can’t imagine that the average parent linking CRT to “self-hate” has ever stopped to consider the messages past and current curriculums send to Black children.
We live in a country where our education systems often condenses the African-American experience as a journey from whitewashed versions of slavery to the “I Have A Dream” speech. In the service of “balance,” we already subject children or all races to “good master, happy slave” narratives, the Disney-version of colorblind Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Black History Months that begin and end with the Civil Rights Movement.
When it comes to Black kids, their educational experiences come with an unnerving truism- you learn about Black history at home or probably won’t learn about it at all. According to a study by the Southern Poverty Law Center, high school seniors struggle with the most basic questions about slavery. What I fear about this current hysteria is that Black students across the country are going be the casualties of conservative fear-mongering. Voicing basic facts about history will be seen as biased, divisive and “anti-white,” especially in classes where they are the minority. Young Black students will get the message that they need to keep quiet about their knowledge and experiences, because classmates who watches Fox News will yell out “That’s critical race theory!”
To be clear, not all Black people have the same opinions on CRT. There are Black folk who think it is corrosive to both white and Black children alike. CRT isn’t infallible, and like many theories that seek to understand deeply complex social, political and legal structures, it has the potential to make claims ranging from solid to excessive, all of which may have varying levels of age-appropriateness in pre-college educational settings.
But what I find disingenuous about CRT critics of all races is that so many of them seem to lack the integrity or even curiosity to find out what critical race theory actually is. They use the term as an empty signifier - a word they can fill with their contempt and ideology without needing to engage with what the theory claims. Christopher Rufo, one the most proponent critics who stirred up the moral panic of critical race theory, tweeted that he wanted to make the word “toxic,” and to “annex the entire range of cultural constructions unpopular with Americans.” This is anti-intellectual at its core. Because of how critics embed all kinds of ideas into critical race theory- from race essentialism to Marxism- I don’t quite know which parts of the African-American experience would be “safe” enough for the rest of the classroom. This is particularly troubling for kids who are growing up in a generation where videos of Black men, women and children being killed by police are common. And we already know the toll that racism has taken on Black children.
How can we seriously ask the majority of young Black students to ignore hundreds of years of history, data, scholarship, and their own eyes and ears in order to reach the conclusion that systemic racism is a myth; that racial disparities are merely indicative of cultural (maybe even genetic) differences that arise from seemingly nowhere? How can we teach that things like the Constitution or the European Enlightenment permeate our society to this day, but centuries of years of slavery and Jim Crow have no effect on contemporary social conditions?
When I see the fury surrounding CRT, I see a country passing on its baggage to another generation of kids of all colors. I see (not only, but particularly) white parents asserting that their children don’t have to pay their dues- to wrestle with the difficult history of this country, and to learn from it so they can help build a better future. And I see the intellectual and emotional burden being placed on the backs of Black children.
James Baldwin said that one cannot be both safe and heroic. Banning the boogie man of what scared people think CRT is neither.
Joshua Adams is a Staff Writer for Colorlines. He’s a writer, journalist and educator from the south side of Chicago. You can follow him @JournoJoshua