The Fight Over Critical Race Theory

As I’m sure you have noticed by now, the latest battlefield in the ongoing culture war is the battle over Critical Race Theory (CRT). Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Florida have all passed legislation banning the teaching of CRT in K-12 schools, with the language included in the legislation varying widely between the states. Interestingly,  Florida is the only state to explicitly ban CRT by name, with other states going with “divisive concepts” as their language of choice. Critics of the new laws have pointed out that the language included in them is overbroad, questioned if the legislature is even necessary due to CRT not being a topic of study in K-12 schools, and have speculated that this attempt to ban CRT is at its core an attempt to prevent the uglier parts of our history to children.

The thing is, everyone involved in this fight has something of a valid point but is pursuing it in the most hamfisted way possible.

To start, there are two different definitions of CRT that are being used by different groups. For detractors, CRT is a catchy buzzphrase meant to describe all manner of activities that involve anyone invoking the phrase “white supremacy.” For advocates, CRT is an accepted framework for examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system, focusing on how white supremacy has shaped lawmaking. Put another way, critics use the term to name the excesses of the theory while advocates use the term to name the theory itself. If one is using the term CRT to name the academic theory then no, CRT is not being taught in K-12 schools. However, if one is using the term more loosely there are a few high-profile examples that can be cited to show that CRT in schools is a growing problem that needs to be addressed. 

If this battle was still confined to social media the distinction between the two definitions wouldn’t matter so much, but now Republican-led states are pushing through legislation that purports to ban CRT from being taught without the laws having a clear definition of what is being banned. No matter your position on CRT, culture war-driven politicians writing extremely broad legislation banning certain forms of speech should scare the hell out of you. This is not a precedent that anyone should be looking to set, as it will be seized on in the future to justify the government banning certain speech or shutting down certain discussions. 

As to the banning of “divisive concepts” being taught in schools, what topics would fall under that umbrella? It seems like every topic is now a divisive one — everything from the Israeli - Palestinian conflict to double chocolate chip ice cream cones are topics of intense debate. The Civil War can be seen as a divisive concept, as can manifest destiny, Jim Crow laws, and redlining — are those no longer allowed in the history curriculum? Who gets to decide what a divisive concept is exactly? Teachers in Tennessee are already asking those questions, wondering what will be off-limits for discussion during the next school year.

One item that Republicans have been not shy about calling out by name is The 1619 Project, with several of the new laws banning the teaching of it in K-12 schools. My feelings on The 1619 Project are split — the first two essays are absolute trash which have been picked apart and proven to be factually incorrect to the point that the New York Times had to quietly change one of the core premises of the project. Once you get past those first two pieces, there are some excellent essays that I think could be used to spark classroom discussion in later grades. In particular, I’d recommend Kevin Kruse’s essay on the lingering effects of segregation and redlining in Atlanta, Wesley Morris’s essay on how Black music and culture became part of the American culture through cultural appropriation starting with blackface performances, and Jeneen Interlandi’s essay on how medical apartheid is still shaping healthcare policy. Banning the entirety of The 1619 Project feels like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, not to mention a massive overreach by state governments into school curriculums. 

It’s worthwhile to fight back against the extremes of CRT, but these laws aren’t an effective way to do that. At best they can solve a tiny fraction of the problem, at worst they set the stage for politicians using government power to fight the culture war. And while you may enjoy that when it’s your tribe in power, I can assure you that you won’t like it when it is not.