The BLM at School Movement seems to have been the first name it gave itself, but its enemies stole a march on the popular mind and rechristened it “the CRT curriculum.” The left-wing dodge was to say that conservative critics were simply confused, since critical race theory is an intricate program, excogitated by a few legal academics in the 1980s and ’90s, which could not possibly be conveyed to children still learning their ABCs. The deflection deserved to fail, and it did fail. No matter what you call it, something new is plainly happening to the way history and social studies are taught in grades K-12.
“Systemic racism” is the new doctrine. The adjective magnifies the force of the noun. Systemic, when you think about it, means that racism pervades every moment and every inch of American society, from the political institutions to the schools to the sports teams; all the elements, too, of corporate life and popular culture, down to the most casual encounter in a street or cafe. Peel back one layer, and you find a lower layer. The new curriculum had been filtering into the elite prep schools for a decade or more. It seems to have migrated to public schools with The New York Times’ 1619 Project and the George Floyd protests of 2020.
Patricia J. Williams, in her recent Nation article “How Not to Talk About Race,” gently ridiculed the problem of the mixed-race child who wonders if one parent is an oppressor and the other is oppressed. “Honestly,” wrote Williams, “it takes something less than a law to untangle that one.” Fair enough—but a cool dismissal of the parent suddenly faced with an anxious child. Things can get tangled in the mind of a kid who has been spoon-fed a lot of sentences that begin “White people…” or “Black people…” (where the sense implies “All white people” and “All Black people”). This may not have been what the original Harvard CRT had in mind, but it is an inference lately spelled out by Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, the best-selling anti-racist authors who are a bigger influence on school boards than all their predecessors combined.
The bans on CRT teaching, by at least nine states, including Florida and Texas, are wrong for the libertarian reasons that Williams gave. But I don’t see how one can deny that anti-racism is a doctrine; and its prominence brings up a question about the place of doctrine in education. The Florida ban outlaws teaching that suggests “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.” As Williams rightly says, such feelings cannot be prevented. They are part of growing up and learning to think.
Yet the commonsense rebuttal may easily become one more deflection. We can’t prohibit, of course, but neither do we want the schools to inculcate a sense of guilt in young children. They do this, however, when they divide students, or for that matter teachers, into racialized affinity groups, and they do it when they seek to elicit confessions of privilege and testimonies of suffering. The new methods are marked by a certain severity, a pressure to cleanse or catechize.
Conor Friedersdorf wrote last spring in The Atlantic about District 65, in Evanston, Ill., where kindergartners are asked to discuss with their parents Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness, by Anastasia Higginbotham. One page shows a white mother turning off the television to stop her daughter watching a policeman shoot a black man. “You don’t have to worry about this,” says the white mother. “You’re safe.” But the book corrects her: “Deep down, we all know color matters.”
Further on, the book shows the same daughter learning some well-advised lessons about race, so that eventually she denounces her mother. Finally, there is the page where the devil offers a contract for “stolen lands,” “stolen riches,” and “special favors” available to any child already favored by whiteness, and tempts the child: “Sign below.” Can anything good come of pretending to a 5-year-old that “whiteness” is an element as real as oxygen, and that it is a gift awarded to select persons who signed a contract with the devil?
For children taking history in later grades, what you learn will depend on where you live, though the contrasts have been overplayed in the media. In Texas, the new law bans the 1619 Project, but mandates a separate unit on slavery, the eugenics movement, and white supremacy (including the Ku Klux Klan), while also requiring study of the American founding documents. Florida’s ban led to the removal of a narrative of a father and son attending a 2020 BLM rally in Minnesota but replaced it with a story about friends attending a civil rights demonstration in 1963.
The CRT curriculum is unquestionably ambitious. It embodies a radical departure from previous ideas of how schools should ask students to talk about their society and themselves. Many parents first made its acquaintance at home during the Covid lockdown, where, over the shoulders of their children taking classes on Zoom, they caught a glimpse of the new things teachers and students were saying. The protests began in earnest when the school boards went back to meeting in public.
In answer to a September 29 letter by the National School Boards Association to President Biden, asking for protection against unruly parents, Attorney General Merrick Garland pledged the resources of the FBI to investigate them for possible hate crimes or domestic terrorism. No incident that came close to a hate crime or terrorism had yet occurred. The local disruptions—heckling, unruly shouts, and so on—were well within the competence of local police. Nor were all the protesters white. Black and Hispanic parents were among them, along with immigrants who had known firsthand the educational methods of China and the former Soviet bloc. On October 22, the NSBA issued a partial apology and retraction of its appeal to the federal government for prosecution of dissident parents; but the damage was done.
What goes on at those meetings? A civil-libertarian legal scholar, Professor Maimon Schwarzschild, who testified at the July 27 forum of the Orange County School Board in California, tells me that “a very considerable number of the parents who spoke against CRT-inflected ethnic studies in the public schools at this forum represented mixed-race or immigrant families. They were well-informed, and deeply and articulately alarmed at what they called divisive and racialist indoctrination—and psychological manipulation—of their children.” One of those parents asked: “Is [my son] privileged because he’s half-white? Or is he a victim because he’s half Persian and a minority?”
Doubtless, on the other side, there are well-meaning anti-racist parents who would like to raise their children as the Spartans did, parents who see their children as soldiers first of all—a front line of defense for a radical cause that is in need of perpetual vigilance. These parents have a great deal in common with evangelical Christians, but another resemblance ought to trouble us. “The central proposition of Fascism,” wrote Karl Polanyi in 1935, “is that society is not a relationship of persons.” Maybe the best one can now hope for is that the schools, having learned their lesson, will see the wisdom of inviting parents more cordially to share their own thoughts about public education. They might even help to set commonsense limits on the proselytizing contents of history and social studies. The worst one can say is that the public schools have begun to teach that society is not a relationship of persons.