Attacks on Critical Race Theory Threaten Democracy

Grounding in an accurate and complete American history -- of which race is a central component -- is the basis for a common understanding on which a democracy is built, Harvey J. Graff argues.

August 2, 2021
 
 
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The current right-wing attack on what it portrays as “critical race theory” reached its nadir recently with Republican senator Ted Cruz’s unhinged, false slur that the theory is “bigoted, it is a lie and it is every bit as racist as the Klansman in white sheets.” Cruz, who boasts degrees from Princeton and Harvard Universities, either fabricated this complete nonsense or repeated it from one of the right-wing activist handbooks for combating critical race theory -- from Heritage Action, the 1776 Project, Citizens for American Renewal -- or from the propagandist Christopher Rufo, whose facts and quotations I find quite questionable.

Late, as usual, Donald Trump joined the discordant chorus with his similarly fact-free and distorted “A Plan to Get Divisive Theories Out of Our Schools.” Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri, who holds a J.D. from Yale University, parrots such falsehoods.

Together this well-funded, coordinated national campaign fuels grievances, provides sample legislation that is copied by right-wing state and federal legislators, supplies guidance on how to disrupt local school board meetings, and offers instructions on how to run for election to boards of education. It joins the movements to suppress voting rights, free speech, women’s and LGBTQ rights, and racial equity -- movements that together represent the greatest assault on American democracy in my lifetime.

The national campaign that seeks to “ban” critical race theory and “teaching about race” falsely asserts that they “blame” white Americans for problems of the past, harm children and stimulate opposition by many parents and veterans. Wild claims allege that such instruction teaches children “to hate America” and “see themselves as racist.”

There is no evidence of that. “Critical race theory” does not exist as a course or curriculum in K-12 education. These “bans” aim to intimidate teachers; they violate the First Amendment free speech rights of both teachers and students. Moreover, they aim to spark hysteria, distract followers from their lack of constructive policies and ultimately win elections.

The opposite is closer to the truth. A firm grounding in an accurate and complete American history is the basis for self-knowledge, maturation and the common understanding on which a democracy is built. American history is complicated, and the American experiment with democracy is ongoing. Race is a central component in that history.

In practice, critical race theory has two streams. One is more formal, principally in law schools, where it has been taught for more than four decades and is a mainstream, required course. It emphasizes the central role of race and racism in the law, institutions and policy. The attackers are ignorant of this fact and the actual contents of often groundbreaking scholarship. That does not stop Rufo from claiming that reputable and distinguished scholars are “Marxists” who “advocate the redistribution of private property” and the overthrow of capitalism. I call this “fake news.”

The other stream is a general approach to history, society and culture that recognizes the central role race and slavery have played in American history -- an undeniable point. It has developed in scholarship and education since at least the 1950s, across the ideological spectrum. The findings and perspectives of several generations of “new histories” reshaped our understanding of American history and achieved a broad place at all levels. There are debates and points of contention -- over the acclaimed “1619 Project,” for example -- but acceptance among the informed and tolerant is nearly universal. Such teaching can’t be “banned,” no matter how hard the Cruzes and right-wing activists try.

We must take these dangers to our democracy seriously and combat them at local, state and national levels. Educators, parents, teachers and concerned citizens must come together to oppose these dishonest and often illegal efforts at every level. Historians, humanists and social scientists must lead by applying our knowledge to this common imperative. We know about race and racism, slavery, teaching, and the public application of our shared knowledge. In the recognition, protection and expansion of America’s true past lay our hopes for a better future.

Bio

Harvey J. Graff is professor emeritus of English and history at Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. He has written about critical race theory in the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other publications, and has spoken about it on NPR.

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