How Scholars are Countering the Big-Money Backed "Critical Race" PanicHistorians in the News
tags: culture war, academic freedom, teaching history, critical race theory
Invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in mid-December, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced new legislation that allows parents to sue schools for teaching critical race theory. “You think about what MLK stood for. He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character,” said DeSantis, a political ringleader in the latest chapter of the United States’ culture war. In using a quote from Dr. King to justify an attack on curricula that uplifts racial justice, the Republican governor inadvertently created a strong case for why critical thinking on the history of race and racism in the U.S. is necessary.
History professor Robin D. G. Kelley is all too familiar with the sort of contradictory statements like those DeSantis spouted. Kelley, who is the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at the University of California, Los Angeles, explains that he “came into the profession at the height of a battleground over history, in the 1980s, with the war on political correctness.” And although he’s lived through decades of conservative-led attacks, like those by DeSantis, he describes the 2020s as “dangerous times.”
Kelley sees right-wing attacks on CRT—what he considers an umbrella term for the teaching of “any kind of revisionist or multicultural history”—as a measure of the success communities of color and progressive parents and teachers have had after pushing for years to ensure that educational curricula reflect racially and ethnically diverse classrooms.
The most recent movement for such education can be traced to the Freedom Schools of the 1960s, which, in the words of educators Deborah Menkart and Jenice L. View, “were intended to counter the ‘sharecropper education’ received by so many African Americans and poor whites.” In a civil rights history lesson created for Teaching for Change, Menkart and View explained that the education offered in nearly 40 such schools centered on “a progressive curriculum … designed to prepare disenfranchised African Americans to become active political actors on their own behalf.” In 1968, after months of pressure from student activists, San Francisco State University established the first College of Ethnic Studies in the U.S.
Critical race theory is precisely the sort of nuanced educational lens that Crenshaw, Kelley, and others use in their courses and that has White supremacist forces up in arms. Attacks against CRT are taking the form of multi-pronged legislative restrictions and even bans, as well as firings of teachers accused of teaching biased histories.
Kelley sees conservatives like DeSantis working relentlessly to eliminate any education that actually reckons with the history of American slavery, the genocide of Indigenous peoples and dispossession of their lands, sexism and patriarchy, and gender and gender identity. Reflecting again on the ’80s, he says the attacks on ethnic studies, culture, and race didn’t only come from the Right. “In fact,” he says, they also came from “liberals, from the Left,” and from those saying “we’re not paying enough attention to class [struggles].”
Kelley cites “classic liberal fatigue” against ongoing demands for racial justice, which he encapsulates in responses such as, “We already gave you some money, we already gave you this legislation, what else do you want to ask for? Why are you criticizing us?”
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