For more than a year now, conservatives have been waging war against the misdefined conception of critical race theory that they themselves created. The right-wing campaign against so-called CRT largely amounts to a round-robin chorus of hysterical voices asking, Won’t someone think of the poor white children?! “CRT tries to make kids feel bad because of the color of their skin,” Representative Ron Nate, cosponsor of Idaho’s anti-CRT law, stated just after the bill passed in May. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who successfully led the state school board to ban CRT from public school classrooms last summer, tweeted in June that “Critical Race Theory teaches kids to hate our country and to hate each other.” Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill muzzling history educators over lessons that might make students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” In pursuit of that goal, Republican senators in Texas recently drafted and approved yet another anti-CRT bill—after ditching language inserted by outnumbered and outvoted Democrats that would have required teaching “the history of white supremacy,” including slavery and the Ku Klux Klan, “and the ways in which it is morally wrong.” “We don’t want to teach those little white children that they should feel guilty because of what previous white people did generations ago,” Senator Bryan Hughes explained to a local news outlet about why he filed the bill.
Eight states have passed laws and 20 more have proposed legislation to outlaw a version of critical race theory that’s wholly of conservatives’ own imagining. In reality, the 40-year-old graduate school framework provides a prism on racism as “a structured reality that’s embedded in institutions,” as law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw described it in an interview with this magazine. But those behind the current anti-anti-racist movement in education have publicly admitted to repurposing CRT to “turn it toxic,” as conservative activist Christopher F. Rufo put it, branding it as anti-white propaganda. The legislative offspring of that misinformation movement is a slew of laws seeking to limit how history is taught. In Tennessee, just after the state legislature approved an anti-CRT measure, a teacher who assigned an article by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the intersection of racism and Trumpism was fired; in Texas, a Republican lawmaker is currently circulating a list of 850 books on race and other topics he says violate the new anti-CRT law.
What’s become abundantly apparent in watching the CRT social panic unfold is how its adherents steadfastly believe and propagate the idea that a full accounting of history—one that includes long-ignored perspectives and experiences and, consequently, locates the contradictions between American delusions of exceptionalism and the country’s grievous reality of brutal exploitation—is somehow historically inauthentic or a kind of frivolous add-on to the textbook narratives of white benevolence and heroism. In addition to pretending they’re saving white children, conservatives have also issued breathless accusations of national betrayal, variously casting CRT as “anti-American,” “a crusade against American history,” “racist pedagogy and anti-American revisionism,” and—wait for it—“Marxist.” The idea undergirding all this is that an inclusive American history is a specifically Black history. Listen to the throngs of angry white parents at school board meetings and it becomes clear that they believe history is a zero-sum game—that a history that documents Black American existence undermines and erases white American history. Like Blackness itself, these folks see Black history as somehow both insufficiently American and inherently anti-white.
But the history of Black folks in America—through slavery, Black codes, lynchings, redlining, voter disenfranchisement, Jim Crow, racial pogroms, illegal medical experimentation, extrajudicial and state-led theft of Black land, anti-Black policing, racist mass incarceration—is white American history, too. Not only were white people present as that history was being made, they architected the astoundingly sturdy systems of oppression that have organized Black/white social, legal, economic, and power differentials since America’s settler-colonial founding.
This notion that good history should be teased out from bad is a sign of just how poorly history has always been taught in this country. This isn’t even the first time white conservatives and their allies have waged violent protest against truth-telling in history, from the campaign to ensure the dominance of the ahistorical Lost Cause narrative, which saw literal textbook history revised to promote a false narrative of white magnanimity, to the massive resistance strategy of aggressive white opposition to school desegregation. If conservatives didn’t spend so much time zealously defending their version of the past, they would know that.
The teaching of history, when grounded in truth, isn’t anti-anything. Instead, it’s a careful consideration of historical facts. There’s no way to get around the reality that Black chattel slavery built America’s elite colleges, that the state largely sanctioned anti-Black pogroms committed by white mobs, that many of our most prized national landmarks sit atop bulldozed Black communities, that our white supremacist racial order provided well-documented inspiration to a rising German political star named Adolf Hitler. Another reason this backtracking effort is futile is that this history defines our present. Ruby Bridges, the tiny 6-year-old Black girl who had to be escorted by US deputy marshals into a New Orleans school to keep her safe from frothing white anti-integration mobs, is only 67 years old today. It’s hard not to suspect that a significant number of white folks gnashing their teeth over the teaching of our horrific racial history played an integral part in making it.
Condoleezza Rice, a childhood friend of one of the four little Black girls murdered in the 1963 white terrorist bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church—who should therefore know better—recently denied there is a current effort to suppress history and aired concerns that “how we teach history” threatens to “make white kids feel bad for being white.” It sounded like she was trying to assuage white fears. But that’s nonsense. In truth, white people are finally learning their own history. And in a nation where the majority of public school children today are non-white, opponents can slow progress on telling the truth. But history will prove they were unable to stop it.