Why Is Critical Race Theory Being Banned in Public Schools?Roundup
tags: Christianity, religious history, evangelicals, critical race theory
Charles McCrary is a postdoctoral research scholar at the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at Arizona State University.
Leslie Ribovich is assistant professor of religion at Transylvania University, a liberal arts college in Lexington, Kentucky.
On July 26, Florida’s ban on teaching “critical race theory” (CRT) in public schools went into effect. In June, Governor Ron DeSantis had strongly supported the ban and urged the State Board of Education to pass it. He was not alone; many other states have enacted or proposed similar regulations and legislation. DeSantis told the Board that teaching CRT would “cause a lot of divisions.” He continued, “I think it’ll cause people to think of themselves more as a member of a particular race based on skin color rather than based on the content of their character.”
DeSantis’s mention of “character” nodded strategically to Martin Luther King Jr., but it also evoked “character education.” In promulgating the CRT regulation, the Board pointed to a statute that outlines the instructional content and values to be taught in public schools. The Florida statute’s language owes to the character education movement of the 1990s and early 2000s, which aimed to standardize approaches to students’ morality and character through values such as “kindness,” “charity,” “respect,” and “patriotism.” Although advocates from psychologists to moral philosophers continue to work on varied initiatives under the umbrella of character education to this day, the character education movement saw its political heyday under President George W. Bush’s standards-based public education legislation, No Child Left Behind. Campaigns to ban CRT are a new phase in the long history of public schools as sites for political and even theological conflicts about character and values.
The education bills and regulations are one flank of a larger offensive by media figures, think tanks, and politicians on the right, who have united against what they are calling critical race theory. As used by these critics, the term is malleable and can refer to almost any discussion of systemic racism, white privilege, and similar concepts, despite CRT’s history as a specific field of academic scholarship that began in law schools in the 1970s and 1980s. In academia, CRT usually refers to this legal scholarship, although in recent years some have applied the label more broadly to analyses of systemic racism and its role in American institutions. Taking a lead from the propagandist Christopher Rufo, many anti-CRT reformers initially took aim at anti-racism seminars and implicit bias training sessions for public- and private-sector employees. Quickly, though, their focus shifted to higher education and then public schools. It’s that shift—and that it was so quick and almost unnoticed—that deserves more attention.
Why schools? There are practical reasons: Public schools, more so than the private sector or even other public institutions, are possible to control via legislation and regulations. Beyond that, public schools are among Americans’ most beloved disciplinary institutions. They are the site for American debates about values, character, identity, and what kind of citizens we want to produce. For many of the same reasons, they are also a site for American religion.
On its face, religion appears most relevant to the current attacks against CRT because of the movement’s particular players. Opposition to CRT has been fostered in religious settings and, in many cases, structured by conservative Christian frameworks. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention resolved in 2019 that CRT and intersectionality are “unbiblical ideologies.” In June, famed televangelist Pat Robertson referred to CRT as a “monstrous evil.” The history of Christian conservatives’ role in culture war politics is vital to understanding the current CRT bans. Since at least the 1960s, Christian conservatives have mobilized against what they have deemed as liberal, secular “indoctrination” in schools, and their arguments, strategies, and networks are all relevant here. The attacks on CRT are also part of the ongoing debates about public education as a vehicle for moral and spiritual values.