The Republican Party’s cynical assault on Critical Race Theory is a political strategy that relies on controlling the message going into the 2022 midterm elections. So partisan apparatchiks, along with the talking heads that populate the GOP’s media echo chamber, have adopted a rigid approach to any dissent from the party line regarding what it hopes will be the new orthodoxy on teaching—or, to be more precise, not teaching—about historic and systemic racial injustice in America. If someone dares to suggest that what Republicans like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis are proposing is not just shamelessly anti-historical but also threatening to freedom of speech and honest dialogue in the United States, the response is guaranteed to be rough.
Conservative strategists who see the assault on CRT as vital to their prospects for an electoral comeback are terrified that the absurdity of their arguments will be exposed. They want Democrats and progressives to avoid the subject so that Republican governors and Fox News hosts can convince suburban swing voters that the issue that matters most in their lives is the history curriculum at the local high school. It’s an old “culture wars” strategy, but it only works if the GOP spin goes unquestioned.
So challenges to the big lie du jour are treated as threats. Efforts to explain CRT as an academic project that seeks to expand thinking about systems that perpetuate racism are met with vitriol very nearly as intense as what might target a dissident calling out the false premises of an authoritarian regime.
But Randi Weingarten is unafraid of the right-wing speech police. The American Federation of Teachers union president took them on this week with a robust defense of public education that teaches the whole story of America. “Let’s be clear: critical race theory is not taught in elementary schools or high schools,” she said. “It’s a method of examination taught in law school and college that helps analyze whether systemic racism exists—and, in particular, whether it has an effect on law and public policy. But culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history.”
That’s precisely what’s happening, and Weingarten, a savvy observer of politics at its best and worst, identified the danger in blunt terms.
“These culture warriors want to deprive students of a robust understanding of our common history. This will put students at a disadvantage in life by knocking a big hole in their understanding of our country and the world,” she told the virtual AFT TEACH Conference. “Yale historian Timothy Snyder likens it to the ‘memory laws’ of Soviet and other repressive regimes. Authoritarians take actions designed to manipulate interpretation of the past, assert a mandatory view of events and forbid discussions of accurate historical facts. But you, the professionals in the classroom, the people who use your expertise to help our students succeed—you know better. We teach history, not hate.”
That scared the managers of the assault on CRT. So, too, did the declaration by the former US History and Government teacher—at New York City’s Clara Barton High School—that the union would defend history teachers, and history itself. “Mark my words: Our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history,” Weingarten announced. “We have a legal defense fund ready to go. And we are preparing for litigation as we speak. Teaching the truth is not radical or wrong. Distorting history and threatening educators for teaching the truth is what is truly radical and wrong.”
Tapes of Weingarten’s speech were featured on Fox News, hour after hour, night after night. She was condemned on conservative talk radio. Social media was predictably vicious. And the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which sometimes avoids the worst extremes of the newly Trumpified right, went all in on this one.
“National teachers unions are adopting woke values and pressing them into K-12 curriculums across America,” screamed the Journal’s lead editorial on Thursday. The paper demanded: How dare Weingarten liken the whipped-up crusade against CRT “to historical revisionism in the Soviet Union and other repressive regimes”?
The answer, of course, is that rewriting history in order to prevent education about what really happened is what authoritarians do. Just as former president Donald Trump is peddling a false narrative about the 2020 election, and just as Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson is claiming that the January 6 assault on the US Capitol wasn’t an insurrection, the opponents of teaching about systemic racism are trying to convince Americans that teaching about the ways in which slavery, segregation, redlining, economic inequity, and structural racism in the criminal justice system have fostered contemporary inequality is somehow un-American.
The Journal editorial page was not just furious with Weingarten. It was furious that educators attending the annual meeting of the National Education Association—one of the two major unions, along with the AFT, of teachers in the United States—encouraged the union to push for professional development that promotes “restorative justice practices and other racial justice trainings.” And that the delegates supported a call for “a national day of action to teach lessons about structural racism and oppression.” In particular, it seems, the Journal editors were concerned that proposals for action have come from Black Lives Matter at School and the Zinn Education Project. “That’s Zinn as in Howard Zinn, the late radical whose history of the United States boils down to one long tale of the people versus the oppressors in power,” warned the editorial page, which declared, “The NEA and AFT get behind progressive political indoctrination.”
The editors would do well to read Zinn’s writings, which celebrate the struggles of working-class people of all races and backgrounds against elites who would create a society where the balance is invariably tipped in favor of the wealthy and powerful. Zinn’s books aren’t about indoctrination but liberation. They argue that knowing the full history of the United States, the good and the bad, the tragic and the inspiring will free people to forge a more economically, socially, and racially just and democratic United States.
That’s what the critics of teaching systemic racism, who decry “Critical Race Theory,” fear the most, because people who want justice and democracy are unlikely to empower the likes of Donald Trump and Ron Johnson. So the right is trying to cancel those who dare to suggest that America is a work in progress that benefits most from a rich understanding of its full history—and of its full potential to address the inequities that extend from that history.
But the strategy won’t work as long as teachers like Randi Weingarten are willing to push back with the truth. “Teaching America’s history requires considering all the facts available to us—including those that are uncomfortable—like the history of enslavement and discrimination toward people of color and people perceived as different,” says Weingarten. “Years ago, our country unified against Holocaust deniers; we must unite again to address racism and its long-term effects.”