Culture War in the Classroom: Time for Educators to Go on the OffensiveRoundup
tags: curriculum, culture war, teaching history, history wars, critical race theory
Leo Casey has been a teacher of civics and history and a teacher unionist for four decades. He works at the American Federation of Teachers.
The American right’s latest culture war offensive is an all-out assault on “critical race theory” (CRT). Like other right-wing campaigns, the attack on CRT is taking place on two fronts—one battle to define the term negatively in popular discourse, and another to enact laws and executive orders that severely restrict how racism is addressed in public schools and post-secondary public institutions. The two fronts work in tandem, feeding off each other; consequently, they must be addressed together.
The right has been shrewd in selecting its target. Founded in the 1970s by legal scholars, CRT has its roots in efforts to explore the ways that racial biases in the law result from structural and systemic inequities. In subsequent decades, the approach spread to disciplines across the social sciences and humanities, as well as to professional fields such as medicine and education, with the goal of investigating and analyzing systemic racism in different cultures and institutions. Today, its influence can be found in dozens of fields of research, and in thousands of texts by hundreds of authors.
Previously known to few outside of academia, it has become a racial Rorschach test, a canvas readymade for the projection of white anxieties, fears, and resentments. That is exactly what the right is counting on. The leading strategist behind the current attacks, Manhattan Institute fellow Christopher Rufo, has explained that the “goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” Writing in the New York Post and City Journal, Rufo linked the theory to a long list of negatively perceived terms and events, including Marxism, Stalin’s gulags, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the Khmer Rouge, “Black Communism,” “anti-Americanism,” “omnipotent bureaucratic authority,” and “re-education camp[s].” Alongside this gallery of horrors, Rufo included terms that are employed in actual efforts to address racism in education—equity, social justice, and diversity—rendering them guilty by association.
It is essential to keep in mind what’s at stake here. It’s not the reputation of CRT among scholars, and not even how the general public perceives it. It’s a campaign to drastically limit teaching and learning about racism in public K–12 and higher education, while inflaming the Republican base.
So far, six states have enacted laws, four have taken other forms of action (executive orders issued by state boards of education or directives from attorney generals), and another eight states have bills pending in legislatures controlled by Republicans. Bills introduced in an additional eight states appear to have stalled or failed in legislative sessions that are ending, although many are sure to be reintroduced when state legislatures reconvene.
How should educators respond? Ignoring attacks from the right won’t do, and neither will politely seeking to correct the record. Rufo isn’t participating in an academic colloquium. He’s writing propaganda, and propaganda doesn’t have to be logical or true to be effective.
A defensive response is guaranteed to lose. But there’s still time to push back. An effective positive response will need to meet four criteria.