Who Gets to Decide What is History?

Historians in the News
tags: curriculum, culture war, teaching history, critical race theory

Kenya Minott and Robin Steenman are both concerned about the national uproar around critical race theory, but for different reasons. 

For Dr. Minott, a consultant in Houston who provides anti-racism training, the recent bill passed by Texas lawmakers is a frightening effort to discourage conversations about systemic racism that could lead to better racial justice. It targets what the politicians say are concepts found in critical race theory, a decades-old idea that considers the ways race and racism influence American politics, culture, and law.

“One of the things this legislation and others around the country is causing is keeping the silence [about racism] ... and that’s harmful for all of us but most particularly students of color,” she says. 

Ms. Steenman, who lives in Franklin, Tennessee, and runs a local chapter of the national group Moms for Liberty, has a different view. She sees critical race theory as an effort to sow strife among Americans and overturn racial progress. 

“It seeks to divide along racial lines,” she says. “When you start bringing up critical race theory and bringing up skin color, you ... go back to neo-racism and neo-segregation and it’s a tragedy.” 

A culture war is heating up just as students and teachers are starting to break for summer. Stoking the divisiveness is a push by conservative politicians to focus on critical race theory and whether its tenets are adversely affecting school climate and should be prohibited. Arguments for and against the approach do not always track precisely along political, racial, or ideological lines. In general, those in favor of the new laws want more restrictions as classroom discussions and hastily implemented anti-racist lesson plans have taken hold in the past year. Those opposed say statehouse rules could have a chilling effect on conversation about racism and race in schools just when it is needed most. 

A key step toward finding middle ground will be if opponents can agree to “let kids in on the secret that we disagree,” and allow teachers to present both sides of the debate in class, says Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania. 

“The debate isn’t about whether there’s been racism; it’s about what racism has meant and what it’s done to America. Is it something that’s been progressively overcome as we move toward fulfilling our national ideals, or is it something that’s been a constant force in society, making society itself irredeemably racist?” says Professor Zimmerman, author of “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools.” “What we need is for each side to have the courage to let that debate happen in our classrooms.”

Nationally, the discussion of race shows no sign of abating. This week the United States is remembering the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre – one of the worst incidents of race-related violence in the country’s history. It’s an event that Americans by and large learned little about in school, as actor Tom Hanks wrote in an opinion piece Friday. Former Vice President Mike Pence also weighed in on the subject in a speech on Thursday calling systemic racism a “left-wing myth.” 

To date, conservative politicians in 16 states have introduced legislation aimed at prohibiting concepts they cite as divisive and often attribute to critical race theory. So far, bills have passed into law in Arkansas, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. A Texas bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. Many school board meetings and elections are seeing robust parent turnout, spurred by disputes, in part, over critical race theory and anti-racist curricula. 

Read entire article at Christian Science Monitor

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