First It Was Sex Ed. Now It’s Critical Race TheoryBreaking News
tags: culture war, teaching history, Sex Education, education history
In the 1960s and 70s, conservatives were waging a war against what they considered an existential threat infiltrating America’s public schools. Pamphlets were circulated by the John Birch Society, a right-wing extremist group, declaring it a “filthy Communist plot.” And then-Governor Ronald Reagan of California decried it as a “moral crisis” that needed to be eradicated. What was poisoning the minds of America’s youth? Sex education.
These days, sex ed is more widely accepted, especially following the HIV/AIDS epidemic (though conservatives have still managed to beat back more progressive school curricula when it comes to sexual health), but the Republican Party’s habit of identifying a bogeyman in America’s education system hasn’t wavered.
Then it was sex ed. Now, it’s critical race theory.
Critical race theory is a legal scholarship framework that has been around in academia for four decades and asserts that racism is systemic and embedded in many American institutions. But over the past few months, the term has been co-opted by Republicans as a catch-all buzzword to signify the perceived threat of anti-white indoctrination in American schools. This has motivated a slate of proposed legislation outlawing a wide range of teachings. Since the start of this year, at least six states have enacted bans on the teaching of critical race theory or discussions of racism in the classrooms, according to a Brookings Institute analysis, while almost 20 other states have introduced similar bills. Moreover, a handful of states, like Florida and Texas, have also successfully banned the teaching of the New York Times’s 1619 Project curriculum, which explores the central role of slavery in the development of the U.S. The project has been harshly criticized by conservatives who have accused its writers of recasting history through a racial lens. To be sure, the bills vary. Some bills mention critical race theory directly, while others only reference bans on “divisive concepts” or any teachings that imply “one race or sex is inherently superior.” But this concerted effort to limit what can be taught in our schools isn’t new — it’s the latest chapter in the GOP’s long-standing push to target curricula that goes against its political ideology.
Republican attacks on cultural issues within America’s public schools follow a familiar pattern. First, they’re usually in response to a vague idea of what might happen — that is, teaching sexual health might lead to more school-aged teenagers having sex (although there’s actually been a decline in the percentage of American high schoolers having sex since the early 1990s). Second, when there is a debate over teaching often taboo, complex social issues, like racism, evolution and sex, elected school board members can exert an outsized amount of control. Considering school board members are more likely to be white and are often partisan, Republicans’ political agenda can get a disproportionate amount of weight in school board decisions. And if the contemporary Republican Party has taught us anything as of late, it’s that “anti-wokeness” is political catnip for its base, so it’s unlikely that this crusade goes away any time soon. In fact, because critical race theory deals so explicitly with racism and discrimination, it has arguably animated the GOP base in a way that previous education battles haven’t.
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