How Trump Ignited the Fight over Critical Race Theory in SchoolsHistorians in the News
tags: curriculum, culture war, teaching history, critical race theory
Twelfth grade English teacher Kaari Aubrey said she and her students at Collegiate Baton Rouge often talk about current events — including efforts across the country to ban diversity education and what is being characterized as "critical race theory" in schools.
Louisiana is one of many states where legislators have proposed bills to bar educators from teaching “divisive” concepts like white privilege and racial equity. The bill has faced heavy opposition in the state, but Aubrey said she and her students are still concerned.
“A lot of students expressed really wanting to feel like their teachers care about them as people, not just as students. I believe you can’t really care about a person unless you take their full identity into account,” she said, noting that most of her students are Black. “We’re basically saying that students are not allowed to learn in the context of themselves. It’s very disturbing.”
A cluster of bills that aim to prohibit teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools have popped up in the last year. Lawmakers behind an Idaho bill said critical race theory “tries to make kids feel bad,” and in Tennessee, legislators accused such practices of “promoting division.” Meanwhile, a Rhode Island bill bans teaching the idea that “the United States of America is fundamentally racist or sexist.”
Conservative leaders have been accused of using the decades-old academic term — initially intended to recognize the systemic racism inherent in American life — as a catchall for anti-racism and diversity efforts.
The proposed policies mimic former President Donald Trump’s September memo ordering the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding training on critical race theory for federal employees, calling it a “propaganda effort.”
Around the same time, he condemned the "1619 Project," a Pulitzer Prize-winning 2019 New York Times report led by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones that holds America was truly founded not in 1776 but in 1619, when the first enslaved people were brought to the colonies. Educators embraced this message and began utilizing the project and looking for resources to teach a more holistic history of the country.
Trump rebuked the project as a "warped, distorted" portrayal of American history. Both the memo and this attack sparked the commission of the "1776 Report," meant to combat the contents of the "1619 Project." The countrywide uprisings in the wake of George Floyd's death only fueled the matter, with pundits debating the nation's fraught history of racism. Thus, although President Joe Biden reversed Trump's initial ban in January, the seed had been planted.
Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at University of Houston–Downtown and co-editor of "Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines," said the sudden prevalence of these bills is "alarming."
"Any anti-racist effort is being labeled as critical race theory,” Chism said. “Many that are condemning critical race theory haven’t read it or studied it intensely. This is largely predicated on fear: the fear of losing power and influence and privilege. The larger issue that this is all stemming from is a desire to deny the truth about America, about racism.”
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