As we celebrate July 4 while shyly emerging from the worst pangs of the COVID-19 epidemic, it’s hard not to feel the weight of this year’s challenges. The founding elements of the American experience have been called into question in multiple directions. Fittingly, the murder of George Floyd has rekindled a conversation about the myth of a nation based on the idea that “all men are created equal.” Wrongly, the former president and his Republican supporters attempted to delegitimize the American electoral process by pushing the Big Lie that the 2020 election was fraudulent.
One extremely worrying development is the use of laws prohibiting speaking in an attempt to shut down debate. Many state legislatures across the country, including that of Pennsylvania, have introduced bills banning the teaching of critical race theory, a decades-old academic philosophy that explores the intersections of white supremacy with the power structures in American society.
READ MORE: State GOP lawmakers try to limit education on race and racism
In more succinct terms, these bills aim to ban ideas.
As an editorial board and opinion service, we understand how difficult it is to engage with views you disagree with or consider to be hateful or immoral. We experience this on a daily basis, as we elevate pieces from a wide variety of perspectives, some with which this advice agrees and others not. We do this because being exposed to ideas different from our own is a fundamental part of American democracy.
In June, Pennsylvania joined 25 other states where lawmakers introduced a bill banning the teaching of critical race theory, often confusing it with broader discussions of racism in America. The Republican bill prohibits any public school or college from teaching, hosting a speaker, or assigning reading that promotes any “racist or sexist concept” – or risks losing funding. Of course, “racist or sexist concept” is extremely broad language in a way that seems to include, for example, a read on affirmative action. The bill also explicitly prohibits discussing the idea that “the United States of America or the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is fundamentally racist or sexist.”
The bill, arguably a violation of the First Amendment, should be viewed as a serious threat. In nine states, measures restricting the way race or gender is discussed in schools have already been enacted.
What is most disturbing about this law is that it is precisely the opposite of what our ancestors risked their lives to inscribe in the founding documents of our nation. Our founders appreciated the importance of spreading ideas – even controversial ones – so much that they clarified their protection in the First Amendment.
The ability to freely discuss and debate ideas is part of what keeps America, even with all our faults, going on and on improving: from abolitionists to suffragettes to freedom riders, all of whom have expressed a extremely unpopular speech at the time, but ultimately pushed America to be better.
Being exposed to ideas that you disagree with – or that you find abhorrent – is an American right and privilege. Just days ago, Hong Kong’s last pro-democracy newspaper was shut down and journalists arrested, as Chinese government leaders tried to quell dissent.
This council has criticized institutions, from the police to the Mummers, as racist and believes that exploring systemic racism in our country – today and during its founding – is part of a well-rounded education. But even if we disagreed with the content of Critical Race Theory and related ideas, we would still encourage them, because it is healthy to fight against ideas that you are not sure of. agreement. Engaging in a vigorous exchange of ideas can strengthen our own views or lead us to accept new ones. It is a lesson worth teaching to everyone in America.
READ MORE: Should Pennsylvania Schools Adopt a Critical Racial Theory Curriculum? | For / Con
Our ancestors lived in revolutionary times, and perhaps they could not have envisioned polarization today. But we too are living in revolutionary times. In Philadelphia and across the country, we saw a courageous and fervent uprising in 2020, born out of hundreds of years of anger at systemic racism in law enforcement. The result has not yet been a new or perfect nation, but changes are occurring that we would not have seen without the protected freedom of speech of the millions who raised their voices in the streets last June.
Enabling Americans to debate and disseminate a plethora of ideas – including critical race theory – is at the heart of what the men (of course, they were all men) who founded our great nation on the 4th July and every day.