Republicans are using the debate about Critical Race Theory as an excuse to rewrite American history.
How far will that rewrite go if they get away with it?
Consider last week’s Bloomberg Law report from the Texas statehouse:
The Texas Senate on Friday passed legislation that would end requirements that public schools include writings on women’s suffrage and the civil rights movement in social studies classes.
Among the figures whose works would be dropped: Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez, and Martin Luther King Jr., whose “I Have a Dream”speech and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” would no longer make the curriculum cut.
This is what it has come to. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has already signed legislation that requires educators to avoid instruction that suggests “slavery and racism are anything other than deviation from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States.” The initial measure even barred instruction based on The New York Times’ Pulitzer Prize–winning 1619 Project. And the Senate bill goes even further, as the Texas Tribune notes:
Despite an outcry from educators, the Texas Senate backed SB 3 on a 18-4 vote. The measure now heads to the state House. It won’t be acted upon immediately, because the chamber lacks a quorum. That’s because Democratic members left the state in order to block action on Republican moves to suppress the votes of people of color, students, and others who might cast Democratic ballots.
But the action by the Senate offers a reminder of just how far Republican elected officials—in Texas and in states across the country—are ready to go in their drive to block the teaching of honest history.
The latest Republican crusade isn’t about Critical Race Theory, an academic construct taught mostly in law schools and graduate programs. The core idea of CRT, as EdWeek explains, “is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
That’s not a debatable point.
But the facts have not stopped Donald Trump, his amen corner on Fox News, and Republican legislators from stirring up a debate about CRT as part of a broader effort to threaten teachers who seek to provide students with an honest history of a country that permitted slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and scorching inequality in education, employment opportunities, housing, and access to capital. James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, has explicitly rejected the fantasy that teaching about racism and white supremacy creates division in society, arguing, “You cannot heal divisions by pretending they don’t exist. The way to address divisions is to understand the history of those divisions.”
American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten says the attacks on CRT are really attacks on our understanding of history, and on the ways in which that understanding frames contemporary debates about voter suppression, policing reforms, and other issues.
“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,” Weingarten told union members two weeks ago. “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.”
But what happens if essential history is canceled out of the curriculum?
Texas Republicans say they aren’t banning instruction about Dr. King and the civil rights movement. But when they require that teachers say slavery, segregation, and racism were only “deviations” from an otherwise noble project, they create confusion about the motivations of King and others who suffered, struggled, and died in the fight for equal justice. And when they cancel requirements that King’s greatest statements be included in teaching plans, they dumb down the discourse and leave history to chance.
That’s a dangerous road to go down. It raises the prospect that Texas students could finish K-12 education with scant knowledge of the civil rights movement as a necessary response to lynchings, bombings, KKK attacks, segregation, poll taxes, voter suppression, and all the other manifestations of systemic racism. It raises the prospect that high school graduates will know the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. as little more than a name associated with a three-day weekend.
This attack on our history has nothing to do with Critical Race Theory and everything to do with the fact that Dr. King spoke in the “I Have a Dream” speech—the very speech Texas Republicans seek to strike from the curriculum—about the “millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice.” And about the fact that, a century after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, “the Negro still is not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself in exile in his own land.”
That is the honest truth that must be taught. So, too, is the truth contained in the other King text that would be dropped from the curriculum, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” in which the pastor wrote, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
That lesson is the one the proponents of conservative cancel culture fear the most. Because if students learn the real history of injustice and inequality, they might conclude, as King did:
We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.