This month, on her first day in office, Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders issued an executive order banning the teaching of critical race theory in her state’s K-12 public schools. She joined the parade of other mostly Southern Republican lawmakers and governors who have banned teaching CRT in their states’ schools.
Ironies abound in the CRT controversy, starting with the fact that “critical race theory,” properly understood, is an area of academic legal study not actually part of K-12 education. But for the last three years, conservative activists have been using the term as a catch-all for a variety of subjects they don’t want taught in schools.
Which leads to another irony: In some of the states where Republican lawmakers crow about having banned CRT, it is not explicitly defined in the law. For example, in my home state, our governor last year signed legislation with the aim, according to his press release, of “keeping critical race theory out of Mississippi schools.” But the law enacted in Mississippi doesn’t even mention CRT by name.
So what does the Mississippi law do? It forbids forcing students “to personally affirm” that “any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior or that individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, ethnicity, religion or national origin.” Which is something no reasonable, decent person can argue with.
Still, talk of banning teaching CRT excites the conservative media complex and the Republican base, who worry that students who study racism in America are being indoctrinated to hate their country.
Meanwhile, liberals worry that these Republican-led Southern states will, while making a show of rooting out left-wing bias in the classroom, limit the teaching of American history in ways that leave students with major gaps in their knowledge of their country’s past, consigning these states to remain among the poorest and most poorly educated in the nation.
Of course, the trick to teaching anything, especially history, is context.
When my young adult novel Sources of Light came out in 2010, I was invited to visit high schools in Arkansas. Set in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi in the civil rights era, Sources of Light is about 14-year-old Samantha, who sees and photographs injustices all around her. She joins marches for voting rights, she becomes involved in the sit-in at Woolworth, and she helps solve the murder of her mother’s close friend at the hands of a racist neighbor. The story is loosely based on my experiences growing up in Jackson during the 1960s and became a way for me to talk with students about the civil rights movement and race.
At the high schools in Arkansas, I showed black and white pictures taken in the 1960s of civil rights marches and sit-ins that helped inspire me to write Sources of Light. The pictures show mostly African Americans marching while white people hold up signs saying things like “Integration is Communism,” “Stop the Race Mixing,” and “Integration is Illegal.” One picture shows a white boy who looks to be 12 holding up a sign that reads “Put Me Down as No [N-word]-Lover.”