Teaching kids to hate America? Republicans want ‘critical race theory’ out of schools
Idaho’s governor last week signed into law a bill whose purpose, at face value, is noncontroversial. The law prohibits public schools and colleges from teaching that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.”
The catch? Baked into the legislation is an effort to stamp out conversations about race and equity. A dozen or so states — including Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Rhode Island and West Virginia – have introduced bills that would prohibit schools from teaching “divisive,” “racist” or “sexist” concepts.
Critics warn these measures are part of a larger movement to draw America’s culture wars into classrooms. And this war centers on a once-obscure legal theory about how the legacy of slavery continues to permeate American society today.
“Critical race theory” goes beyond advocating for civil rights or banning discrimination. Proponents see it as a framework to examine how the taint of racism still affects Black Americans and other people of color in matters ranging from who gets bank loans and admission into elite universities to how suspects are treated by police.
Detractors dismiss critical race theory as a method for “teaching kids to hate their country” or to promote “public school wokeness.”
But while such talking points play well among conservative media circles, political and legal experts contend they obscure more meaningful discussion about the role systemic racism plays in the American experience.
The bills seeking to prohibit the instruction of “divisive concepts” seldom mention critical race theory directly, but in many cases legislators have cited it as a driving force behind the measures.
In an April Facebook post promoting a bill in Rhode Island that has since stalled in committee, state Rep. Patricia Morgan, a co-sponsor, wrote, “Critical Race Theory must be stopped.” After quoting Martin Luther King Jr., she went on to say, “Our state must reject the neo-racism and race-shaming of Critical Race Theory. We have no time to waste in rooting out this disturbing, divisive and false ideology.”
While discussing a new civics education initiative in Florida’s public schools, Gov. Ron DeSantis said, “There’s no room in our classrooms for things like critical race theory. Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money.”
Overall, such legislation would better enable opponents to ensure that so-called ideology doesn’t fester in institutions such as schools, Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, has said in his newsletter. “Our movement to abolish critical race theory indoctrination in public schools,” he wrote in one issue, “has caught fire.”
The bills’ language reflects many conservatives’ view that critical race theory portrays the United States as a racist country, that certain people are “inherently oppressive” and that those people are accountable for the sins committed by their predecessors. In their interpretation, the theory seeks to make particular individuals – namely, white people – feel uncomfortable and guilty about their race.
This was the premise of former President Donald Trump’s executive order banning diversity trainings for federal workers – a directive that garnered lawsuits, was blocked by a federal judge and was eventually rescinded by President Joe Biden.
“They were teaching people that our country is a horrible place, it’s a racist place,” Trump said during the first presidential debate. “And they were teaching people to hate our country.”
History of schoolhouse culture wars
The ideas behind critical race theory were developed in the 1970s by a group of legal scholars who became “interested in how anti-discrimination law wasn’t addressing the persistent inequalities they were seeing,” said Adrienne Dixson, a professor of critical race theory and education at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
The recent wave of attention on critical race theory didn’t start with Trump but rather became “crystalized” during his administration, Dixson said. Former President Barack Obama’s election “was shocking and traumatic for people who always imagined the U.S. as a white nation,” she added, and since then, there’s been “a profound ignorance about what critical race theory really is.”
Interest in the topic has grown over the past year, fueled in part by Black Lives Matter activism following the murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer. Google search trends show a spike this spring.
In some states, political debates have erupted over the role and design of racial justice-minded education. In March, activists launched a national, largely conservativegrassroots group called Parents Defending Education aimed at resisting what members believe are activists and ideologues “pumping divisive, polarizing ideas into classrooms,” according to the group’s literature.
Much of the group’s advocacy focuses on challenging curricula based on the 1619 Project, a series of stories by The New York Times in 2019 that frames U.S. history within the context of slavery. (A separate series of state bills have also sought to punish schools for incorporating the project into lesson plans.)
A recent poll by Parents Defending Education found more than two-thirds of respondents “opposed schools teaching that America was founded on racism and is structurally racist.” Close to 3 in 4 respondents said schools shouldn’t teach students that white people are inherently privileged and people of color inherently oppressed.
The group has taken to filing federal civil rights complaints against districts that say structural racism plays a role in schools. The complaints in cities such as Columbus, Ohio; Hopkins, Minnesota; Webster Groves, Missouri; and Hillsborough, North Carolina, contend such admissions amount to districts violating federal anti-discrimination law, which should void their federal funding.
“We would like the Department of Education to investigate these incidents in order to determine whether these allegations are true — and if so, how best to remedy the situation to prevent future discrimination by that district,” Nicole Neily, president of Parents Defending Education, told USA TODAY in March.
Legislating critical race theory
Educators who study critical race theory see value in teaching about America’s history with slavery and discrimination. But Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Fordham Institute, is concerned about the growing trend of “anti-racism” lessons in schools.
Pondiscio doesn’t oppose the founding principles of critical race theory. But he says teachers can better combat systemic racism by setting high expectations for all students, using a rigorous and rich curriculum and focusing on literacy – not ideologies.
“Whenever you have a phenomenon like this that people don’t fully understand, it’ll be ripe for demagoguery,” he said in an interview.
Legislation targeting critical race theory isn’t the answer, he added.
“People make the assumption that you can pass a law and it changes what gets taught,” he said. “That’s not how it works.”
The legislation also raises free-speech concerns, said Emerson Sykes, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.
“The underlying impetus for these bills is antithetical to the free-speech values that many of these legislators claim to hold dear,” he stated, adding that the ACLU is in the process of evaluating its litigation options in response to the bills.
Sykes said the proposals are a form of prior restraint – “censorship before someone has even had the opportunity to speak” — and called inserting schools into controversial political debates and mandating that teachers take a side is “hugely problematic.”
The politics of public school wokeness
The pushback has received its own pushback, prompting some of the bills – including New Hampshire’s – to stall or die in committee. Others are proceeding at full speed.
Iowa’s Department of Education had to postpone a conference related to social justice and equity in schools in anticipation of that state’s bill being signed into law, Iowa Public Radio reported. Officials decided to put off the event until the fall.
In Idaho, Republican representatives said they wouldn’t support a bill related to educators’ salaries unless it also included lines reflecting the state’s critical race theory-related legislation and banned schools from incorporating social justice into their teaching.
Non-legislative efforts to oppose critical race theory in schools have unfolded as well, including political task forces, campaign initiatives and school board debates.
In Anchorage, Alaska, the school board’s move to adopt anti-racism policies drew criticism from one member who argued the measures would usher critical race theory into lesson plans. In California, activists launched a fight against both critical race theory and ethnic studies in schools. In April, they sued the San Diego Unified School District, claiming it’s unlawfully training educators in critical race theory.
In Texas, critical race theory’s potential as a political lightning rod became clear following a Dallas-area school district’s efforts to soothe feelings after a viral TikTok video showed a group of white teens shouting racial slurs.
School board meetings grew heated after the Carroll Independent School District created a diversity council that drafted a plan aimed at making its classrooms anti-racist. At one meeting, a Black student and member of the new diversity council was booed after testifying “my life matters,” according to the Dallas Morning News.
This month, opponents of the plan won a handful of seats – including the mayor’s office and positions on the school board – in an election that garnered record-high voter turnout.
Their victory was described by The Federalist, a conservative online magazine, as a harbinger of “a new cultural Tea Party.” It marks “an escalating movement to reclaim K-12 schools infected by the racism of critical race theory,” the publication wrote.
In that kind of political climate, critical race theory has become a rallying cry to stoke conservative voters’ fears, said the University of Illinois’ Dixson — even though the theory was originally intended to advocate for the same principles the legislation attacking it purports to promote.
“What critical race theory doesn’t do is indict entire races of people and blame the inequality on all white people,” Dixson said. “I don’t know that any school teaches critical race theory in the way that these [legislators] interpret it.”
Contributing: Jessica Guynn