GOP legislatures target critical race theory

Republican-controlled legislatures in half a dozen states are taking up measures that would ban or limit the teaching of critical race theory in public schools, a new front in the culture wars that is likely to expand far more broadly in the coming years.

Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) earlier this year became the first to sign legislation to withhold funding from schools that compel students to adopt viewpoints that are “often found in critical race theory.”

The Texas state Senate has passed similar legislation. The Tennessee state House advanced its own version through an education committee this week. And legislators in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Arizona are working on bills that would impact the curriculum in public schools in their own backyards.

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“To prepare the next generation, Texas public schools should inspire a love of learning, foster students’ natural curiosity and provide a strong foundation to understand history from a balanced approach and navigate current events, not require educators push a political agenda,” Texas state Sen. Brandon Creighton (R), the chief sponsor of his state’s measure, said in an email. 

His bill, he said, “will hold the line in Texas to ensure civics courses teach traditional history, focusing on the ideas that make our country great and the story of how our country has risen to meet those ideals, not that any race is inherently superior or place political requirements on students.”

Critical race theory, an academic concept developed in the 1970s and 1980s by leading legal theorists, holds that racism is ingrained in the history of the United States, and in laws still on the books today. It seeks to challenge that racism in order to improve equity in racial power through reforming the law. In the last several years, school districts and boards have adopted new ways of teaching about the darkest periods in American history in ways that adhere more closely to what critical race theory would hold.

“The term critical race theory is being used by Republicans in a loose way to capture all sorts of critical thought abut the histories and legacies of racism in this country,” said Amna Akbar, an associate professor of law at the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University. “It’s a bogeyman that they’re constructing around critical attention to the history of the country.”

The debates around measures to limit the teaching of critical race theory have instantly tapped into fraught conversations around race and racism in the United States, especially in the wake of the protests that erupted after the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer and the 2020 elections. In his final year in office, then-President TrumpDonald TrumpRealClearPolitics reporter says Freedom Caucus shows how much GOP changed under Trump Jake Ellzey defeats Trump-backed candidate in Texas House runoff DOJ declines to back Mo Brooks's defense against Swalwell's Capitol riot lawsuit MORE ordered an end to anti-bias trainings based on critical race theory at federal agencies.

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In Tennessee, the bill’s chief sponsor, state Rep. John Ragan (R), castigated those who promote critical race theory as “seditious charlatans [who] would if they could destroy our heritage of ordered, individual liberty under the rule of law, before our very eyes."

Ragan did not respond to The Hill’s request for an interview.

That enraged state Rep. Antonio Parkinson (D), an education committee member who also heads the Tennessee legislature’s Black Caucus.

“Race is a very, very uncomfortable subject here in the Tennessee legislature, and especially having those conversations in truth. There’s a lot of fragility and defensiveness when we try to have these conversations,” Parkinson, who voted against the bill in committee, told The Hill. “This goes back to the question of, is America racist? These conversations are uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially people that benefit from the institutional and structural racism that exists in America.”

Supporters of the measure are wary of some big-city school districts that have introduced controversial new curricula in recent years. Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman fellow in education at the conservative Heritage Foundation, pointed to an “equitable math” curriculum designed in collaboration with the Los Angeles Unified School District. And a prominent teacher’s union in New York City adopted action principles promoted by Black Lives Matter.

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The conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation posted a flyer circulating at a middle school that asked teachers to consider “culturally relevant teaching.”

“Colorblindness is a myth, and one that denies our students validation of their whole person. It also perpetuates the idea that ‘white’ is the norm and everything else is not. We should see the differences that make our students who they are, and make sure that each person’s experience is celebrated,” the flyer said.

“What lawmakers are responding to is evidence of material that suggests that people should be treated differently based on immutable characteristics, race, sex, country of origin,” Butcher said. “Students should not be taught that members of one race are superior to another, and variations on that theme.”

Akbar and others see a through line between Trump’s defeat in 2020, at the hands of the most racially diverse electorate in American history, and the new attacks on critical race theory in the classroom.

“In some sense they’re a direct response to Trump through his campaign slogan, [‘Make America Great Again’], which very much invokes that history of enslavement and colonialism and celebrates it as central to who the United States is,” Akbar said in an interview. “On the right it’s something to celebrate. On the left it’s something to critically interrogate and try to imagine how we address that.”

There is little indication that a wave of critical race education is sweeping through high schools and middle schools across the country. The legislation meant to curb it are preemptive measures, for the moment, but ones that have shown some political salience: Voters in Southlake, Texas, on Saturday ousted several city council and school board members who advocated for more anti-racist education.

“Given how quickly some of these proposals have moved, yes, I would expect more of these [bills] to come,” Butcher said. “This is also an effort to provide more transparency for families.”

Both supporters and opponents of teaching critical race theory frame the debate in terms of freedom of speech, one that is under attack either from those who seek to promote thinking about America’s racist legacies or from those who seek to ban its teaching.

“There’s been an agenda to suppress speech and ideologies that are different from theirs,” Parkinson, the Tennessee state representative, said in an interview. “Whether it’s intentional or unintentional, there is structural biases that exist in our country and in the state of Tennessee. There is legislation that is being pushed today that creates differences or gaps between different groups of people. And maybe it’s an issue of desperation because of the ever-changing landscape of our country.”