- Adam Koplik
The New Book Burning: The Case Against Banning Critical Race Theory
From the "War on Drugs," which intended to vilify the left and Black people, to the traditionalist "Make America Great Again," the American right's slogans have been coded in xenophobic and racist dog whistles for decades. Buzzwords like "thugs," "urban crime," and "caravan" have allowed the right to thinly veil their racism while enacting policies to uphold it. Now, Republicans across the nation have come up with a new term to frighten their constituents and attempt to turn back the country's clock even more: "Critical Race Theory."
According to Education Week, a nonpartisan news organization covering K-12 education, critical race theory is an academic idea "that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies." At its core, critical race theory looks to educate students about the systemic injustices present in America and its history. It is rooted in legal studies and simply states that racism exists on an institutional level. Critical race theory studies governmental actions like school segregation, redlining, and gerrymandering, which have had long-lasting effects on systemic oppression remaining present in our nation.
However, some conservatives have conflated critical race theory with all social justice movements. They have used it as a buzzword to signal that something is "woke" and therefore wrong. From diversity training to "cancel culture," some conservatives worldwide believe that the heart of critical race theory is not learning about our dark history but simply blaming all white people for the past actions of the nation. Just look at this tweet from former British National Party leader Nick Griffin:
In the tweet, Griffin posts a picture of a brown bear, black bear, and polar bear, with text underneath stating, "BROWN BEAR," "BLACK BEAR," and "RACIST BEAR", captioned "Critical race theory. The actual #racism afflicting the death pangs of liberalism." This is a common criticism of critical race theory, saying it is racist against white people and simply asks white people to take responsibility for racism.
The criticism is baseless: no one is asking white people to apologize for systemic oppression, only to acknowledge its existence. It is not about saying all white people are racist and need to change; it is about showing all people that systemic racism is a real problem that needs to be addressed. It is about explaining why the United States’ poverty rate in 2018 among Black people is 20.8% versus 8.1% for white people. It is about explaining why 1 in 3 Black men in America are likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives, compared to 1 in 17 white men. It is about explaining why the average graduation rate for white people in the US is 89% yet just 80% for Black people.
Additionally, conservatives have pushed critical race theory as anti-American and anti-democratic, often calling it instead "Marxist" theory. They believe that students learning about the United States' often negative history will turn them into revolutionaries who want to overthrow the government. Their prime example of critical race theory's anti-patriotic ways is the allegations of racism against America's founding fathers, like the controversy around statues and namesakes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
Most critical race theory proponents would not argue the genius of someone like Jefferson. His view of the nation created the foundation of a revolutionary system of government. However, how can one read the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and not see the irony? The country's founding document explains that "all men are created equal," yet many of those who signed their name owned other human beings at this time.
To see that hypocrisy founded the United States look no further than Jefferson’s proposed “public education system”, which pitched itself, like the nation did, as for everyone. A system that would allow anyone to get an education. However, the basic principles of the proposal suggested that education only be offered to white men, making it not a truly public system. Further, at a very young age the system would stop being free for all, and it was really only wealthy and a select few poorer white boys that would be able to actually progress through the system. Jefferson’s hope with his system was for its graduates to be government workers, scientists, and teachers. So, the way it really ended up working was that majority wealthy white men would be the ones writing laws, controlling science, and teaching the next generation, allowing wealthy white men like Jefferson to maintain the status quo.
Many of the founding fathers were not great men, and there is an argument that some were even bad. Acknowledging this is not anti-America, nor is it attacking so-called “fundamental American ideals” like liberty and individualism. It is just admitting that the country is not perfect, and work is needed to fix it.
What is American about forcing ideals on people? The country was founded on a violent revolution to free itself from a "tyrannical” regime. How is wanting to better the nation unamerican? How is pushing ideas that may differ from the norm unamerican? America is supposed to be the land of the free. Freedom of speech includes freedom of thought, and that freedom should be protected. It is not tyrannical to teach our history. However, it is tyrannical to change our history.
The whitewashing of American education has taken place for decades. Generations of people have learned an education based on a white perspective, barely touching on slavery outside of an economic factor and instead only focusing on the rare times in history where the country has created a positive for Black people. In American education, The Emancipation Proclamation, 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, Brown vs. Board of Ed., and the Civil Rights Movement are taught as the entirety of Black American history. Black history is American history. They should not, and cannot, be separated. All critical race theory looks to do is to finally teach American history as it should be taught—focusing on all Americans, not just those in power.
Despite its positives, the right is fighting critical race theory as if it is a more significant threat to Americans than the disease that has killed over 900,000. Bills are passing throughout the nation that would rip funding from schools that teach critical race theory. One bill proposed in Wisconsin would prohibit teaching concepts like "equity," "institutional oppression," and "social justice." In Texas, a new bill went into law that bans teachers from discussing "a widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” The bill does not specify what a controversial issue is. However, a related bill passed a few months ago made the rounds after a Texas school district executive said, "…make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust, that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives." More recently, a Tennessee school board banned the graphic novel Maus which details the survival of a group of Polish Jews under Nazi rule. If something as evil, ruthless, and fact-laden as the Holocaust can be deemed "controversial," then there is no telling how far this governmental overreach of our education system will go. This is what erasing history looks like. The goal of this overreach is to stop students from understanding “controversial” issues, and instead just to accept a starry-eyed, historically inaccurate version of the country and the world.
Republicans' insistence that everything they do not like is anti-American, Marxist, and revolutionary attempts to maintain power akin to Thomas Jefferson's original view of public education. Except, instead of ensuring only wealthy white men get an education like Jefferson tried, Republicans are trying to make sure that everyone gets an education written by wealthy white men. This allows them to continue to push an idea of American exceptionalism and paint anyone who dares criticize their perfect country as unamerican.
Critical race theory should not be a controversial curriculum. It is simply creating an education that looks at American history unapologetically and in an unbiased way. America has a dark history, but, as Winston Churchill said, "Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it." The only true way to better our country is to acknowledge that we have problems. We are not a perfect country and trying to ban teachings like critical race theory only threatens to move us backward.