How Trump started the fight for critical race theory in schools

Kaari Aubrey, a grade 12 English teacher, said she and her students at Collegiate Baton Rouge often talk about the news – including efforts across the country to ban diversity education and what is referred to as a “critical theory of race” in schools.

Louisiana is one of many states where lawmakers have proposed bills to prohibit educators from teaching “divisive” concepts like white privilege and racial fairness. The bill faced strong state opposition, but Aubrey said she and her students were still concerned.

“Many students have expressed a desire to feel that their teachers care about them as people, not just as students. I believe you can’t really care about a person if you don’t consider their full identity, ”she said, noting that most of her students are black. “We’re basically saying that students are not allowed to learn in their own context. It is very disturbing.

A group of bills to ban the teaching of critical race theory in K-12 schools emerged last year. Lawmakers behind an Idaho bill have said critical racial theory “tries to harm children,” and in Tennessee, lawmakers have accused such practices of “promoting division.” Meanwhile, a Rhode Island bill prohibits teaching the idea that “the United States of America is inherently racist or sexist.”

Conservative leaders have been accused of using the decades-old academic term – originally intended to recognize the systemic racism inherent in American life – as a catch-all for anti-racism and diversity efforts.

The proposed policies mimic former President Donald Trump’s September memo ordering the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding critical race theory training for federal employees, calling it a “propaganda effort “.

Around the same time he condemned “Project 1619,” a 2019 Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times report led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones who holds America was truly founded not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first slaves were brought in. to the colonies. Educators adopted this message and started using the project and researching resources to teach a more holistic history of the country.

Trump berated the project as a “twisted, twisted” portrayal of American history. Both the memo and this attack triggered the commission of the “1776 report”, intended to combat the content of the “1619 project”. The uprisings across the country following the death of George Floyd have only fueled the question, with experts debating the racist history in the country. So although President Joe Biden rescinded Trump’s initial ban in January, the seed had been planted.

Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston – Downtown and co-editor of Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines, said the sudden prevalence of these bills is “alarming.”

“Any anti-racist effort qualifies as a critical race theory,” Chism said. “Many who condemn Critical Race Theory have not read or studied it thoroughly. This is largely based on fear: fear of losing power and influence and privilege. The biggest problem. from which it all stems is the desire to deny the truth about America, about racism. “

Critical Race Theory arose when lawyers, activists and jurists joined in the 1970s and 1980s to come up with theories and strategies to combat more subtle forms of racism, according to “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction “. The concept seeks to understand racism and inequality in the United States by exploring and exposing the ways in which racism appears as an ordinary part of everyday life. The school of thought – founded by academics such as Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw and others – draws on critical legal studies and radical feminism.

“Critical race theory is a practice,” said Crenshaw, an academic and professor of law at UCLA and Columbia University. and that the laws and systems of this past are detached from it.

Critics of the theory have declared it a “harmful and divisive ideology” which “places group identity above individualism and creates a binary conflict between” oppressor “and” oppressed “over race. As an article from the Foundation for Economic Education puts it.

Last week, Republicans in Tennessee introduced a bill to oppose the teaching of critical race theory in schools. The bill does not name the concept but fights its principles by prohibiting educators from teaching white privilege. Prior to that, Idaho Gov. Brad Little enacted a bill accusing critical race theory of igniting divisions and undermining “the unity of the nation.”

Many bills use similar language without explicitly naming Critical Race Theory. The Oklahoma and Louisiana bills say educators cannot teach concepts such as “an individual … bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or same sex ”.

The tension is also being felt at the city level. In Southlake, Texas, a slate of school board and city council candidates who opposed a diversity and inclusion plan for the Carroll Independent School District scored wide wins. Conservative candidates for two school board positions, two city council seats and mayor won their races just months after the affluent, predominantly white district presented a proposal to tackle racial and cultural intolerance in schools .

“Voters have come together in record numbers to restore unity,” Hannah Smith, one of the new school board officials, told NBC News. “By an overwhelming vote, they don’t want the critical race theory that divides the race to be taught to their children or forced on their teachers. Voters agree with my positive view of our community and its future. “

However, critics of the bills say that banning educators from teaching the nation’s history of racism does a disservice to students. The Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission has called on Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt to overturn a pending bill that would effectively ban teaching about the massacre in schools. The Organization of American Historians expressed a similar concern after Trump’s memo last year.

Even the students are looking at the question. A sophomore from Boise High School urged the Idaho Senate Education Committee to reconsider the bill.

“As a student, I learn best when I have the right to teach myself,” Shiva Rajbhandari said during committee testimony, KIVI-TV reported. “I like research projects and one-on-one learning where I can go as deep as I want and make my own opinions on things and then share my findings and reasoning with my class. This bill restricts that process. learning. ”

Idaho State Representative Steve Berch, Democrat and Bills Critic, said there was no widespread evidence that teachers were even pushing school of thought into classrooms.

Darius Benton, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Houston-Downtown and contributor to the co-edited book Chism, called the interdiction efforts dishonest because critical race theory is generally not taught in K-12 public schools.

“It’s not even really in the program. People don’t really engage in critical breed theory before graduate school and some undergraduate programs, ”said Benton, who taught in high schools. “Any time a particular group wants to stay in control, they restrict education. I hope this will not become the case.

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