What’s Really Behind Attacks on the Teaching of America’s Racial History

The election of Republican Glenn Youngkin as Virginia’s governor last year, breaking an eight-year run of Democratic rule in the Governor’s Mansion, can be attributed to a number of factors — Democrat Terry McAuliffe’s lackluster centrist campaign, dissatisfaction with President Biden’s policies or just desire for a change. But the issue that revved up the state’s conservative base like no other was school curriculum, especially the teaching of the history of race in Virginia and the United States.

A lot of media attention focused on McAuliffe’s seeming attack on parental involvement in schools (which was not what he meant), and Youngkin rode the controversy for all it was worth. But underlying the issue was the charge that schools were teaching, or conspiring to teach, critical race theory (CRT) to students. Youngkin embraced the attack against CRT by setting up a tip line for students and parents to rat out teachers who discussed race in their classrooms.

CRT, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, is “an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare. Critical Race Theory recognizes that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice. It is embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities.” Once the far right discovered CRT, it became a weapon to use against any teaching about race in K-12 schools, however remote from academic CRT the curricula might be. 

How racial history is taught varies by region. States outside the old Confederacy have been more likely to address the issue head on, and in recent years even southern states have been more honest in addressing slavery and Jim Crow in their curricula. As I noted in the August 2021 Socialist, there has been movement since the days when students in the South were taught that slavery was a benign system and Jim Crow was almost never mentioned.

This edging toward teaching the truth about American history, however, has been too much for some parents — and non-parents with an agenda — to bear. (The opinions of students are rarely solicited.) Critics charge that teaching about the mistreatment of minorities in US history — and not only Blacks but Native Americans, Latinx, Asians and others — is designed to make white children uncomfortable, to “hate themselves,” to turn them into victims. Many of these parents are eager to squelch the teaching of racial truth by any means necessary, including disrupting school board meetings and making violent threats against their members.

The real motivating factor behind attacks on truthful teaching, however, have nothing to do with making children “uncomfortable.” What opponents of CRT are really afraid of is white students embracing solidarity with students of color in favor of social change.

Progressive educators are rejecting the old teaching that reinforced the notion, however subtly, that whites are a superior caste that deserves a permanent ranking at the top of the social structure. The more the old racial thinking is torn down, the shakier the white-supremacist underpinnings of society become. Valuable examinations of how race is tightly woven into the fabric of US history, such as the New York Times’ “1619 Project,” continue to chip away at the edifice of institutional racism. 

A number of historians, including Isabel Wilkerson (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents) and Theodore W. Allen (The Invention of the White Race) have recognized that the doctrine of white superiority took form in the colonial South to prevent Blacks and poor whites from uniting around issues of class and economics. Instead, whites, even poor ones, were awarded a higher social status, while Blacks were consigned to the cellar of the caste system — even free Blacks were accorded hardly more respect than enslaved ones. 

White anxiety about minorities grasping for equality has colored US politics since the early days of the civil rights movement, but especially since the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008. The shock of a Black president generated a reaction that began with the right-wing Tea Party movement and reached its apex with the election of Donald Trump. The old order has been shaken further by gains made by Blacks and other minorities in representation at all levels of government. The fact that the whites will no longer be a majority in the United States by 2045 further fans the fears of those invested in the old order. Despite many disappointments — the persistence of racist policing, continued suppression of the minority vote in many states, poverty and environmental racism — the arc of history, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, is bending toward justice, however slowly and haltingly.

Today, attitudes about race in America are going in both directions at once. White fear about loss of power and privilege has engendered the effort to expunge teaching about race in America from schools. This is part of the effort of the right to cling to power in a country that is turning ideologically and demographically against it. Conservative politicians employ tactics such as censorship of curriculum, voter suppression and demonization of minorities as a short-term method to win election, for they know their policies are losers in the longer term.

Most of all, the right fears the growing awareness of white students that their brightest future lies not in claiming a hollow privilege but in forming alliances across racial lines that make life better for everyone. Racist politicians wince at recent multiracial youth protests against racism in their communities, such as:

  • Students in White Bear Lake, Minn., walking out of school when racist messages against Black students were posted on social media.
  • A walkout of 300 students in Braintree, Mass., to protest racism locally and across the country.
  • Students at two high schools in Farmington, Mich., walking out over a teacher’s racist language in the classroom.
  • In our own region, a day of wearing black at Bethesda’s Walt Whitman High School to protest racism in Montgomery County Public Schools.
  • Walkouts all over the country after the May 2020 police murder of George Floyd.

This is not to say that racism will be conquered merely by white and minority youth holding hands and singing “Kumbaya.” Contrary to the assertions of many conservatives, racism is not merely people of different races disliking each other because of skin color but rather, as scholars of CRT have established, a system of injustice deeply ingrained in American institutions that benefits the elite by dividing the majority against itself. Young people forming friendships across racial lines doesn’t eliminate racism. But it can be a start — especially if it causes young whites to become allies and activists in the political fight for racial and social justice. 

A major step toward eliminating racism is looking it squarely in the face, and that is what right-wing politicians want to halt — especially when those doing the looking are young people who have a lifetime to do something about it. The battle to teach the truth in our schools is a fight for no less than the future of racial justice in our nation.

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