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Lawmakers in 16 states have introduced or passed legislation this year seeking to limit the teaching of critical race theory within public institutions. These bills all resemble former President Trump's now-defunct executive order prohibiting federally funded institutions from teaching “divisive concepts” about race and gender. But whereas Trump's order was widely interpreted to apply to diversity training, and lacked serious bite with the 2020 election fast approaching, these new state-level bills are already impacting the college curriculum.
Many faculty members see this as censorship, by design.
Shutting Down Conversations?
“That's the point -- it will have a chilling effect so that our administrators or even people like me say, ‘I don't want to get into trouble, right, maybe this is a little too close, I better change it I better modify what I'm doing,’” Brian Behnken, associate professor of history at Iowa State University, said of his state's pending anti-divisive concepts law. “That's instead of saying, ‘You know, it's valuable and important for students to learn about institutional racism, and I can't be scared or timid going into the classroom to teach about these things.”
Critical race theory, an outgrowth of critical theory and critical legal studies, has been around for decades. Its core tenets -- including that racism isn't just an individual phenomenon, it's structural and systemic -- have long undergirded academic discussions about race. But it's become a bigger part of the collective consciousness since the killing of George Floyd, when many Americans began to believe that former police officer and convicted murderer Derek Chauvin wasn't just a so-called “bad apple,” there is something wrong with the tree. Or, more to the point, the orchard.
With this new focus on structural racism has come more criticism of the theory behind it. Conservative lawmakers have argued that critical race theory is divisive and regressive, focusing too much on the darkest parts of America's past and not nearly enough on the racial progress that's been made.
But if opponents think critical race theory will keep the U.S. in some kind of racial hamster wheel, many academics view bans on talking about systemic racism as doing the same. They see evidence of the legacy of racism in their research and data, and think that keeping these truths out of the classroom means failing to prepare students for the world beyond it.
“It's not an either-or, or, ‘Let's vilify this one group,’” said Katherine Cho, an assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University who studies critical social justice and institutional accountability. “It's this idea, how can we complicate the existences that we already have? Because the singular narratives that we're purporting are leaving so many voices out of the conversation.”
Other aspects of critical race theory recognize how race interacts, or intersects, with other kinds of identities, and that racism is enduring and manifests differently over time.
Cho said that two common misperceptions dominate discussions about racism in the U.S.: the “interactional,” as in, “As long as I am not doing racist things, then racism is false,” and the “comparative,” as in, “We're not as bad as we used to be.” And in keeping the discourse here, she said, “we miss the ways that racism may no longer be, for example, graffitiing terrible words in front of somebody's store, but can be much more covert.”
Ariela Gross, John B. and Alice R. Sharp Professor of Law and History at the University of Southern California, said it's still strange to her that a concept based in critical legal studies is suddenly getting so much air time. In any case, she said, race theory examines, in part, how “there are all kinds of ways that institutions can continue excluding people and maintaining hierarchy," even if overt discrimination is illegal.
Racial gerrymandering is one example of many, she said. “You make a really funny district in order to cut out the Black part of town and make sure that a white representative will be elected. You didn't specifically say no Black people can vote here but, you know, it worked out that way.”
In Iowa and Beyond
At Iowa State, Behnken, among other professors, spent the last year helping update undergraduate learning outcomes for Iowa State's longstanding U.S. diversity requirement. The Faculty Senate approved the new outcomes this spring but the provost Jonathan Wickert ultimately rejected them. In so doing, Wickert cited legislation against “race and sex stereotyping” that Iowa lawmakers passed this year. The bill is now awaiting the signature of Republican Governor Kim Reynolds.
Iowa State said in a statement its diversity requirement, in place since 1996, “helps to meet our goal of ensuring students are prepared to thrive in a global and diverse workplace.” The faculty's new outcomes were “narrower” and “more specific,” the university said, and given the finalized legislation, the provost “did not approve the curriculum changes as written, and has encouraged the Faculty Senate to continue its deliberations.”
Of course, the faculty already deliberated for months to develop the new learning outcomes, in part because student groups asked for a more substantial requirement. Behnken said the updated outcomes aimed to inject “academic and pedagogical rigor” into offerings that had “proliferated” into several hundred courses over the years.
The old learning outcomes aren't designed around a thinking taxonomy, and students are required to achieve just two of five stated goals, Behnken also said. Those include "analyze how cultural diversity and cooperation among social groups affect U.S. society” and “articulate how their personal life experiences and choices fit within the context of the larger mosaic of U.S. society, indicating how they have confronted and critically analyzed their perceptions and assumptions about diversity-related issues.”
The updated outcomes would have required students student to achieve all four of the following:
- Identify the experiences and contributions of underrepresented or marginalized groups and how they have shaped the history and culture of the U.S.
- Understand the analytical concepts of culture, ethnicity, race, gender, sexuality and/or religion and be able to apply these concepts to an analysis of the U.S.
- Analyze systemic oppression and personal prejudice and their impact on marginalized communities and the broader U.S. society.
- Evaluate important aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion so they can live, work, and collaborate with others in the 21st century United States.
Iowa State hasn't said publicly which outcome or outcomes risked violating the pending law, but it's likely the reference to “systemic oppression and personal prejudice.” The bill prohibits teaching that the U.S. or Iowa “are fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist,” or that “an individual, solely because of the individual's race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” among other ideas.
In other states, some similar legislative efforts have stalled, some are pending and some have already been signed into law. In Oklahoma, for instance, Republican Governor Kevin Stitt said in a video on Twitter that he supported his state's anti-divisive concepts legislation because “I firmly believe that not one cent of taxpayer money should be used to define and divide young Oklahomans about their race or sex. That is what this bill upholds for public education.”
In response, Oklahoma City Community College suspended a fully enrolled summer course on race and ethnicity that was required for some respiratory therapy students. The college initially said that the new law “revokes any ability to teach critical race theory, including discussions of white privilege, from required courses in Oklahoma."
Erick Worrell, college spokesperson, said in an updated statement that the respiratory therapy program includes a social sciences general education credit and that students previously only had one way to fulfill it over the summer. But upon reviewing SB 1775, as the new law is known, the college's legal team determined that “by making the class optional for the degree of respiratory therapist, rather than required, we are in compliance,” he said. The race and ethnicity class can “therefore continue to be offered as-is.”
Kansas hasn't passed such a law, but its Board of Regents nevertheless asked the six universities under its purview to make a list of any courses involving critical race theory, based on a request from Republican State Senator Brenda Dietrich. She's reportedly said that this was prompted by questions from her constituents about the prevalence of critical race theory in public schools, not her own desire to interfere in the curriculum. Still, the request prompted concern among professors last week after a Pittsburg State University department chair's urgent email, “inquiring for the provost's office if critical race theory is being taught in any PSU classes,“ was shared online.
Idaho passed a law on "dignity and nondiscrimination in public education" that calls out critical race theory by name last month. Even before that, already under pressure from the Legislature, Boise State University suspended 52 diversity course sections over a report that a student had been shamed and humiliated in class for being white. An investigation later found that no such incident had occurred. Instead, according to an independent report, one student admitted to calling an instructor's explanation of structural inequality “stupid.” Other students commented in the Zoom class's chat feature that the comment was “not cool,” and the student left early. The instructor, meanwhile, told the rest of the class that the student was only criticizing the logic of an argument, and later checked in on her.
‘Infiltrating Our Children's Schools’
Even if higher education hasn't lived up to the hype about it being a bastion of white guilt, groups such as the Heritage Foundation are coming out strong against critical race theory, too. Heritage, a think tank devoted to conservative social policies, published an actions toolkit to help root out the theory, which it called a “dangerous ideology that is rooted in Marxism, and is infiltrating our children's schools, the military and society at large.”
Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at Heritage, said in an interview that he was most concerned about students being compelled to defer to divisive concepts, and about students being divided by race or other affinity groups for disparate treatment. But he also generally opposed critical race theory.
“Critical race theory is a philosophy, it's a worldview that believes that the perspective that we should take on for everything around us is about race and ethnic identity, and the founders of critical race theory and their predecessors in critical theory have said as much,” Butcher said. “By its very nature, critical race theory is a call to action, to ask people to apply the idea that this world is divided between people who are victimizers and people who are victims, and that goes back to your ethnicity. And so the consequences of that -- and sometimes it's, it's simply stated this way -- are that you should be treated differently based on the color of your skin. And that's an awful idea that should have been left in the ash heap of history, many years ago.”
Ariela Gross, at USC, said that critical race theory is not about dividing the world into victims and oppressors or about shaming white people. But she said that some of the laws being floated by states aren't just targeting ill-informed definitions of critical race theory.
“Some of them go farther than just saying we shouldn't teach the persistence of structural racism. Some of the laws that are being passed now are also aimed at even just teaching the basics of the history,” Gross said. “Some people want a happier, more celebratory story that kind of whitewashes the past.”
In this sense, the fight over Nikole Hannah-Jones's tenure at the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill is part of the critical race theory battle -- which is, of course, part of the larger culture wars. Hannah-Jones, as co-creator of The New York Times Magazine's “1619 Project,” helped reenvision American history in a way that centers the struggles and contributions of Black Americans. And that continues to rub some people the wrong way.
The “1619 Project” inspired Trump's 1776 Commission for a more “patriotic” education. Just this week, Texas Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, announced the “1836 Project” on Texas history. Never mind that Texas explicitly affirmed slavery when it became a state in 1845, as Hannah-Jones has pointed out on Twitter.
Butcher, at Heritage, disagreed that these new laws are about shutting down critical conversations about history. Students should learn about the “stain” that was slavery and even more recent events, such as racial redlining by banks. But for Butcher, structural racism ceased to exist in the U.S. with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"This idea that there is still systemic racism fails to acknowledge all of the sacrifice and thought and struggle that went into making the Civil Rights Act possible," he said, "and what has been achieved since the civil rights movement."
Leonard Moore, George Littlefield Professor of American History at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the forthcoming book Teaching Black History to White People, calls this notion the civil rights framework, and said it's quite common. “Some people really believe that when those laws were passed that everybody has equal access now. They really believe that as a person.”
Even so, it's a flawed belief, Moore said, citing ongoing voter suppression efforts as one example of the lasting legacy of racism. At the same time, Moore said that “especially around issues of race and ethnicity, our conversations have gotten way too complicated and theoretical. I think students need an old fashioned Black history course. They need a class on Mexican-American history. And maybe a course on women's history.”
Cho, at Miami, also said that students need to learn to history -- and come to terms with it. That's where critical race theory comes in, she said, as it's "this idea that color-evasiveness is something that is learned and taught and structured in our current policies.”
"We can make progress and always continue to critique that progress," she added.