Analysis: Here's what Texas' newly signed ban on teaching Critical Race Theory really signifies

click to enlarge San Antonians march against police oppression during nationwide protests last year. - Jaime Monzon
Jaime Monzon
San Antonians march against police oppression during nationwide protests last year.
“People seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. ... America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States.” — Frederick Douglass in "What To The Slave Is The Fourth Of July?"

During the most recent legislative session, Texas Republicans — ostensibly the party of small government — usurped the role of the state's teachers and school boards in drafting social studies curricula. The bill they passed follows the lead of other state legislatures in targeting a bogeyman by the initials of CRT. If you haven't been following the debate, that stands for Critical Race Theory. 

This allegedly pernicious ideology goes unmentioned in the text of the bill, which Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law on Wednesday. Even so, the legislation's author, State Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, couldn't resist touting his handiwork as "a dagger shot right through the heart of Critical Race Theory."

Many of the conservative critics of this relatively obscure field of legal scholarship would no doubt flunk a remedial pop quiz on the subject. However, before we do some brushing up on what CRT actually is, let's survey the collateral damage wrought by House Bill 3979.

Decree #1: "A teacher may not make part of a course or award extra credit for efforts to persuade members of the legislative or executive branch at the federal, state, or local level to take specific actions by direct communication."

That means no more having students write a letter to the president or their congressperson about pressing issues of the day — one of the standard assignments in basic civics courses. And no more extra credit for anything remotely resembling "political activism" or "participation in any internship or similar activity involving social or public policy advocacy." That means penning an op-ed for a local newspaper, volunteering to register voters, interning for an elected official, attending a town hall with Cornel West or mustering up the courage to speak at a city council meeting can no longer earn a Texas student class credit. So much for fostering an engaged citizenry. 

Decree #2: "A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that the advent of slavery constituted the true founding of the United States" or "that slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles."

Not only does that seem to nix the famous speech quoted above from Frederick Douglass — even though the bill specifically recommends his autobiography as essential reading — it also effectively bans an important book by University of Houston history professor Gerald Horne titled The Counter-Revolution of 1776. In it, Horne shows that one of the catalysts for American independence was colonists' outrage and fear that Britain broached the possibility of forbidding chattel slavery outright — something the country ultimately did three decades before us. The motivating power of slavery was even stronger in Texas' independence from Mexico, but that's another story.

Fact is, slavery was legal in all 13 colonies at the onset of the Revolutionary War. Whether you consider that a "deviation" or take it to be foundational to America's later prosperity, why is it the business of armchair historians in the state legislature, over objections from more than 70 civic groups and businesses across Texas, to censor the teaching of one side or the other in a partisan manner?

Similarly, the bill states: "The State Board of Education shall adopt essential knowledge and skills that develop each student's understanding of the fundamental moral, political, and intellectual foundations of the American experiment in self-government."

This leaves out historians who question whether we can best conceive of the founding as an "experiment in self-government" at all — including Michael Klarman, a constitutional law professor at Harvard. In his book The Framers' Coup, Klarman debunks the romanticized image of our national user-agreement, contextualizing it as an elitist reaction to the burgeoning democractic zeitgeist of 1780s.

Indeed, many voices of the founders' generation may not even escape Texas' new curricular muzzle. Here's Rep. James Lincoln, speaking at the debate over whether South Carolina should ratify: "He had listened with eager attention to all the arguments in favor of the Constitution; but he solemnly declared that the more he heard, the more he was persuaded of its evil tendency. 'What does this proposed Constitution do? It changes, totally changes, the form of your present government. From a well-digested, well-formed democratic, you are at once rushing into an aristocratic government. What have you been contending for these 10 years past? Liberty! What is liberty? The power of governing yourselves. If you adopt this Constitution, have you this power? No: you give it into the hands of a set of men who live 1,000 miles distant from you. Let the people but once trust their liberties out of their own hands, and what will be the consequence? First, a haughty, imperious aristocracy; and ultimately, a tyrannical monarchy. ... It is said this Constitution is an experiment; but all physicians are cautious of experiments'."

Decree #3: "A teacher may not require an understanding of the 1619 Project."

Whatever one's opinion, the 1619 Project was a significant series of articles published in the New York Times Magazine, and the editor of the project won a Pulitzer Prize, both for her work in assembling a range of high-caliber authors as well as her own "distinguished commentary."

Agree or disagree with Nikole Hannah-Jones, as a journalist she's a role model for what students of any background should aspire to achieve through hard work, dedication and resolute character. But now this "groundbreaking look at the impact of slavery" can never be required reading in any of Texas' public or open-enrollment charter schools. To quote back the language of the bill, how does that "strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective?"

Decree #4: "A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that an individual bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race."

Imagine if a right-wing government in South Africa or Germany passed a malleable restriction like this regarding education about racial apartheid or atrocities during Word War II. In 1946, philosopher Karl Jaspers published The Question of German Guilt, evocatively arguing that “an acknowledgment of national guilt was a necessary condition for the moral and political rebirth of Germany." Can we ever truly heal from our wounds as a country without admitting that racism remains a problem the white majority must honestly confront?

Decree #5: "A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual's race."

How, pray tell, can one study the dispossession and slaughter of Native Americans, the kidnapping and enslavement of Africans, the legacy of lynching and segregation and housing discrimination with which we're still living, the racial wealth gap, mass incarceration or the murder of an unarmed Black suspect in custody without feeling some measure of distress?

These injustices should break our hearts, and when teachers are allowed to teach, they can walk the line between letting kids know that while racism was not their idea, many of us are its inheritors and beneficiaries and therefore have a moral obligation to face uncomfortable truths. Being "colorblind," sadly, is not enough.

Decree #6: "A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual's race."

"Reverse discrimination" and "special treatment" are how Fox News pundits have recently spun COVID-19 relief aid to Black farmers, despite the fact that over the past century the Agriculture Department stole tens of billions of dollars from them thanks to actual racial discrimination. This edict ostensibly declares off limits any teacher-led discussion of affirmative action to redress past wrongs — and that in itself is a wrong.

Decree #7: "Any employee of a state agency may not be required to engage in training, orientation, or therapy that presents any form of race or sex stereotyping or blame on the basis of race or sex."

That's unfortunate, since Texas lawmakers could really use a session with renowned diversity educator Jane Elliott.

Decree #8: "A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that meritocracy is racist or was created by members of a particular race to oppress members of another race."

To quote pro football coach Barry Switzer, "Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple." The myth that every individual's share of success perfectly matches their talent can cover up unearned white privilege, recycling status into "merit." At the very least, it's worth considering as an idea, but it's now verboten.

Decree #9: "A teacher may not make part of a course the concept that an individual is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously."

This tosses the entire study of "unconscious racial bias" out the window — along with this 1987 Stanford Law Review essay by professor Charles Lawrence III: “Americans share a common historical and cultural heritage in which racism has played and still plays a dominant role. Because of this shared experience, we also inevitably share many ideas, attitudes, and beliefs that attach significance to an individual’s race and induce negative feelings and opinions about nonwhites. At the same time, most of us are unaware of our racism. We do not recognize the ways in which our cultural experience has influenced our beliefs about race or the occasions on which those beliefs affect our actions. In other words, a large part of the behavior that produces racial discrimination is influenced by unconscious racial motivation."

And that brings us back to the bogeyman.

Spawned by Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell in the late 1970s, Critical Race Theory was an attempt to grapple with the exasperating persistence of racism in American law and life after the hard-won concessions of the Civil Rights era. Legal scholars such as Ricard Delgado, Patricia Williams, Cheryl Harris and Kimberlé Crenshaw created an array of concepts — the empathic fallacy, microaggression, intersectionality, whiteness — to help explain how seemingly neutral institutions are implicated in the continuing subordination of people of color.

CRT is not "state-sanctioned racism," it's not "an excuse for giving up," it doesn't "pit our children against each other" or "teach hate." One of its vital contributions has been refreshing reinterpretations of American history through exhaustive archival work, as conducted by international relations theory expert Mary Dudziak in her must-read article "Desegregation as a Cold War Imperative". Though most of the recent scaremongering has had little to do with CRT as an academic discipline, it's fair to say CRT has inspired anti-racist activists from all walks of life, including many in the Black Lives Matter movement.

And perhaps that's where Texas lawmakers were really aiming their dagger. Like naming a high school after the commander of the Confederate Army in response to integration, we had to expect blowback from the tens of millions of Americans who marched against police brutality and systemic racism last summer.

Ironic, though, that the Legislature's decrees were signed into law around the same time Juneteenth became a federal holiday. Apparently, in the culture war over symbolic gestures, substantive education got left behind.

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