BY JOHN WOOD
Melissa Smith, adjunct sociology professor at Oklahoma City Community College and a U.S. Grant High school teacher, expected to teach a class this summer called “Race and Ethnicity” – one she had taught for several years.
What she didn’t expect is that it would become a casualty of the new Culture War, canceled in response to the 2021 Legislature’s fixation on Critical Race Theory [CRT] – the latest solution in search of a problem that lawmakers gin up to keep their political base fired up.
As NBC’s Tyler Kinkade reported, the Heritage Foundation, a rightwing think tank, orchestrated school board protests with anti-CRT webinars after the election and before the inauguration.
As a result, 78 school board protests occurred nationwide last spring over this suddenly sensitive topic – even though CRT originated more than 50 years ago. In addition, Media Matters reports, Fox News mentioned CRT 1,300 times in a 3½-month period last spring, but only times in 2019 – underscoring its Astroturf-like nature as a faux public policy issue.
CRT has also infiltrated local electoral politics; NBC’s Ben Collins reports there were more school board challenges in the first six months this year than anytime in memory. He quoted Steve Bannon, a former close Trump advisor, saying, “The road to political power is through school boards.” In Politico, Bannon declared, this is “the Tea Party to the 10th power.”
MSNBC’s Hayes Brown revealed that the “same people” behind the Tea Party during President Obama’s presidency were animated by the “MAGA movement’s attempt to return to power” and the “Big Lie.”
After the “insurrection,” the Right found its new bogeyman to fan fear. Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, for example, described CRT as “poison,” and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley warned CRT “is going to hold back generations of young people.”
Or a loss of power and perceived advantage.
As Miami Herald columnist Leonard Pitts, put it, “Tomorrow – mark my words – it will be something else, some other pithy term to serve as a repository of all that the white right fears. There are many things for which they should be afraid – life, health, future. But sadly, they fear nothing quite so much as the loss of whiteness and its privileges. As I said, I know this terrain well.”
So, unfortunately, the “Big Lie,” won’t die – it just mutates.
OKLAHOMA’S NEW LAW
Oklahoma’s HB 1775, which fails to even mention CRT beyond “prohibiting certain topics,” passed along party lines – 77-18 in the House and 38-9 in the Senate.
Our state is not alone.
By mid-August, Education Week cited 26 states that introduced such bans and eight, including Oklahoma, that actually turned the proposals into laws – typically without even knowing what CRT means.
Smith, the Oklahoma City Community College and U.S. Grant High School instructor, said she hadn’t heard of CRT, either, until she did her own research.
Not surprising, Yahoo News/YouGov poll reports only half the public is familiar with the theory and/or knows what it means. And responses underscore the nation’s political polarization: 80% of Democrats have a favorable opinion of CRT, only around 10% of Republicans do.
Not surprisingly, Katherine Bishop, the Oklahoma Education Association’s president, told me that no teacher she knows teaches CRT.
“It’s a moot point,” she said. “We teach with integrity and keep with our standards.” The Association of American Education poll only found 4% are teaching CRT nationwide.
As of May, The Oklahoman reported, the Oklahoma Department of Education had yet to receive a single complaint about the subject being taught.
Another Oklahoma legislative “solution in search of a problem,” Carolyn Crowder, OEA’s interim executive director told me.
CRITICAL RACE THEORY?
Yet, by a 5-1 vote, the Oklahoma Board of Education recently approved HB 1775 rules that censor classroom discussion of race and gender. Violations could lead to suspended teaching licenses and even docking school’s accreditation based on parent complaints, creating ambiguity and fear.
Smith’s class is an example – her class was canceled, before being reinstated too late.
In Critical Race Theory, David Gillborn and Gloria Ladson-Billings describe CRT a reality in which unequal racial outcomes emanate from a “complex, changing, and often subtle social and institutional dynamics, rather than explicit and intentional prejudices in individuals.”
Similarly, Knight Chair in Race and Journalism at the Howard University School of Communications Nikole Hannah-Jones, who created the 1619 Project for The New York Times, explains the series aimed to “reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the United States’ national narrative.”
CRT is polarizing. For example, conservatives view racism as personal, liberals as systemic. In fact, in the same poll, only 31% of Republicans agree that racism is systemic and embedded in our country. And 67% of Trump supporters oppose CRT being taught. No wonder they prefer mis-education.
What I find even more revealing is that when YouGov/Economist pollsters described racism’s systemic nature without the CRT label, 54% of Republicans agree with it – a 23-percentage-point jump that underscores the political underpinnings of these opinions.
HB 1775 has three parts. First, it bans the teaching that one race is superior to another. Smith, for one, said she doesn’t need to blame anyone in order to effectively teach about inequalities and disadvantages in racial terms.
Second, the new law keeps someone from feeling they are “oppressors” in the classroom because of their race and third, not make those students feel “uncomfortable, or feel “guilty.” In her classroom, Smith said, “what I talk about is minorities and majorities. Statistically, we find that men and women often have different access to power. It’s all about power. For the most part, it’s all run by white men. Of course, representation matters.”
“I do have people feel guilty for the past,” she continued. “If we are telling the truth, we should all be uncomfortable. If little kids of color can feel racism, then they can learn about it, too. I always say, get comfortable, being uncomfortable.
“I’m not blaming you, I say it’s the system.”
Seems to me Smith doesn’t teach at all what this new law prohibits. Maybe, it’s because conservatives miss the point, but racism is not necessarily focused on the individual. CRT is unfortunately found in our systems – laws, rules, norms laid down by our ancestors often reinforcing ways to perpetuate racial group inequity.
CHILLING OF MEMORY LAWS
Revising history with “memory laws” is common in authoritarian states like Russia, historian Timothy Snyder told the New York Times.
In a recent Florida Journal of International Law article, Snyder explained that memory laws seek to impose sanctions and uphold a single interpretation of history.
This is exactly what CRT laws do. Violators could be fined and their licenses revoked; restrictions could even undermine school accreditations.
Fox’s Carlson went further than canceling classes. Instead, he called for cameras in classrooms.
“We can’t really be sure until we finally get cameras in the classroom, as we put them on the chests of police officers, until we finally get a civilian review board in every town in America to oversee the people teaching your children, forming their minds. And let’s hope we get both of those very soon. But until we do, we can’t know exactly how widespread this is.”
Consequently, more than 100 academic representatives signed a “Joint Statement on Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism” in June. They contend that these laws are inappropriately attempting to “transfer responsibility for the evaluation of a curriculum and subject matter from educators to elected officials.”
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education [FIRE] points out, however, that while HB 1775 applies to public kindergarten through high school curriculum, it creates a chilling effect on academic freedom elsewhere. They cite the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals case Hardy v. Jefferson Community College and Kentucky Community and Technical College System . The judges ruled that free expression in the college classroom, even if some find it “repugnant,” has First Amendment protections when it is relevant to the class’s subject matter.
In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump ally and prospective 2024 presidential candidate, helped make teaching CRT in kindergarten to 12th grade against state law, replacing it with a National Model Civic Literacy Initiative, not unlike Trump’s 1776 commission, based on September 2020’s Civic Literacy Act created by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council [ALEC].
DeSantis also chilling plans to survey public college and university staff, faculty, and students to gauge their views on “intellectual diversity.” He hinted further “budget cuts could be looming” – a not-so-veiled threat of financial penalties for noncompliance.
Time reports that Trump embraces a nostalgic, mythic ideal in which “our youth will be taught to love America with all their heart and all their soul.”
Trumpwhitehouse.org describes the 1776 Commission as a “rebuttal” to “reckless ‘re-education’ attempts that seek to reframe American history around the idea that the United States is not an exceptional country but an evil one.”
Unfortunately, it also echoes an essay by David Randall for the ultra-conservative Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs that yearns instead for Oklahoma to “write into law a positive vision of what civics and history classes should look like.”
What’s interesting, the New York Times reports, is the 1776 Commission was devoid of historians specializing in what it is rewriting.
It seems to me that Republicans are looking backward through a myopic lens celebrating a nostalgic love-fest for a whitewashed history. Fortunately, President Biden terminated this commission on Day One of his presidency, this idea again reared its ugly head.
PATRIOTIC CIVICS REVISED
Without evidence last year, Christopher Rufo, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, told Fox’s Carlson that CRT has taken over the federal government and is “an existential threat to the United States.” After Trump watched that segment, The Washington Post reported, he immediately issued an executive order requiring federal agencies to cancel program funding on either “white privilege” or “critical race theory” because it is “divisive, un-American propaganda.”
Even worse, NBC’s Kinkade found, CRT opponents increasingly use it as a catchall to include teaching systemic racism, white privilege, and anything related to equity, diversity and inclusion.
Trump’s so-called “patriotic” curriculum is based on Wilfred M. McClay’s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story. McClay, a former University of Oklahoma professor-turned-historian at conservative Hillsdale College, would seem to be projecting when he dismisses all other textbooks as “radical critics of American society.”
Perhaps we should not be surprised; after all, McClay’s “history” book is published by Encounter, often described as an “Anglo-American literary journal.” Sound familiar?
It’s worth remembering that in April the AP reported that far-right House Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-GA, and Matt Gaetz, R-FL, wanted to form an America First Congress to champion “Anglo-Saxon political traditions.”
CNN reported that this caucus came under fire because these “traditions” relate to racist statements on immigration, such as the conspiracy theory that immigrants are “replacing” American-born citizens.
The New York Times reported in 2019 that this might sound familiar as well: “You will not replace us” was chanted by tiki-torch-carrying white supremacists rallying in Charlottesville, VA, against the removal of a statue honoring the pro-slavery Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. The statute was removed in June 2021.
Not surprisingly then, in Dissent, Georgetown history professor Michal Kazin described McClay’s text as glaringly silent on many topics that are in all other American history textbooks: social movements, feminism, LGBTQ activism, unions, and the “long history for black freedom.”
Tim Wise, in Dear White America, said this fits the narrative embraced by Trump acolytes – their bright red “Make America Great Again” [MAGA] hats represent a fictional, glorious turning back the clocks.
These supporters, he adds, tell us of an “idealized, albeit mythical place,” from which they can look down at others.
WAR ON TRUTH?
This all seems rather Orwellian to me.
Winston Smith, the protagonist of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, for example, explains the work he does for the Ministry of Truth. “The Party understands that by rewriting the events of the past and controlling the narrative of history, they can maintain their position of authority.”
It’s all about maintaining power into the future.
To me, we all need access to truth, because if we don’t know where we have been, we’ll fail to see where we are going. A successful democracy requires we face uncomfortable truths, not myths like the Orwellian “feel good” 1776 project.
As the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis said about our history, “You have to tell the whole truth, the good and the bad, maybe some things that are uncomfortable for some people.”
Historian Timothy Snyder told The New York Times that the Republican-led “[W]ar on history, is a war on truth.” On MSNBC’s The Choice, he also said, unfortunately, “we don’t grow up as citizens capable to make good decisions;” when what a classroom “gives us is only good, [then] we are being groomed for authoritarianism.”
In that vein, a teacher’s purpose is to serve the common good through open inquiry that advances truth and knowledge, critical thinking and not myths for ideological and/or partisan aims. Professors should possess academic freedom in the classroom and make their own decisions, free of influence from Oklahoma legislators even if that history doesn’t reflect well upon our state and nation.
Teachers should be able to teach about our state’s troubled past in its fullness – including the Tulsa Race Massacre and Osage murders – without fear of retaliation. If we whitewash this history, our students won’t be able to intellectually deal with future and keep our democracy intact.
Bravely, Smith, the OCCC and high school teacher, said she would not allow a chilling of her academic freedom.
“I teach the truth and I’m not going to run away from that. I’ll keep doing it without teaching lies.”
John Wood, PhD, is a professor of political science at the University of Central Oklahoma. The views he expresses are his and not necessarily the university’s. This essay first appeared in the September 2021 Oklahoma Observer print edition.