Who owns American history? The GOP’s battle against Critical Race Theory and what we can do about it.

  • Action #1: Tell your legislators to vote against any legislation that suppresses accurate scholarship on America’s history and the effect of that history on Americans today.
  • Action #2: Ask college and university presidents to boycott students from states that outlaw or limit the teaching of Critical Race Theory and the accurate portrayal of America’s history.
  • Quick Definitions of Terms: History, Critical Race Theory, Historical Revisionism.

The GOP thinks they can still control the narrative…The nation’s revulsion at the daylight executions of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd demanded historical context of the violence done to Black citizens. Opened in 2018, our country finally possesses a museum and a memorial dedicated to the more than 4400 lynching victims who died between 1877 and 1950, opened with unflinching detail in Montgomery, Alabama. (Watch the dedication here.)

In 2019, many Americans watching “Watchmen” learned for the first time about a real-life attack that decimated a prosperous Black neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. Education on the Tulsa Race Massacre was added to Oklahoma’s curriculum in 2002, and standards were embedded in 2019. It’s now threatened by a GOP governor.

History walked right on to the floor of the Capitol last week, in the person of 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor, who testified before Congress about her memories of that day, how it affect the rest of her life, and who then called for “justice.”

Educators said the history of systemic racism in this country and the contributions of Black people have been erased. “The curriculum was never designed to be anything other than white supremacist,” Julian Hayter, a historian and an associate professor at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said, “and it has been very difficult to convince people that other versions of history are not only worth telling. They’re absolutely essential for us as a country to move closer to something that might reflect reconciliation but even more importantly, the truth.

Update 5/26/21: Trump is teaming with equally racist Newt Gingrich to outline MAGA doctrine for the party. The latter stated that it would include “School choice, teaching American history for real, abolishing the ‘1619 Project,’ eliminating critical race theory and what the Texas legislature is doing. We should say, ‘Bring it on.’” This single sentence includes three ways to say that suppression of knowledge is vital to the GOP survival.

Action #1: Tell your legislators to vote against any legislation that suppresses accurate scholarship on America’s history.

  • H.R.3046 – This bill would prohibit federal service academies from providing training and education based on critical race theory. It is currently sponsored by nine GOP representatives, including 7 members of the Sedition Caucus.
  • S.968 – To prohibit the United States Armed Forces from promoting anti-American and racist theories, which the bill’s author Sen. Tom Cotton, specifically defines as “critical race theory” in the text.
  • H.Res. 397 – Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives that Critical Race Theory serves as a prejudicial ideological tool, rather than an educational tool, and should not be taught in K-12 classrooms as a way to teach students to judge individuals based on sex, race, ethnicity, and national origin. It is currently sponsored by 36 GOP representatives, all but 5 being members of the Sedition Caucus.

Minimal script: I’m calling from [zip code] and I want Rep./Sen. [___] to know that I’m a fan of accurate historical scholarship and disapprove of those who misuse our nation’s laws to censor or suppress knowledge that makes them uncomfortable. Please ask him/her to vote “NO” on [Rep. – HR3046 & H.Res.397/Sen. – S.968] or any similar legislation put forth by these delicate souls.

Contacts

  • Rep. Julia Brownley: email(CA-26): DC (202) 225-5811, Oxnard (805) 379-1779, T.O. (805) 379-1779
  • or Rep. Salud Carbajal: email.(CA-24): DC (202) 225-3601, SB (805) 730-1710 SLO (805) 546-8348
  • Senator Feinstein: email, DC (202) 224-3841, LA (310) 914-7300, SF (415) 393-0707, SD (619) 231-9712, Fresno (559) 485-7430
  • and Senator Padilla: email, DC (202) 224-3553, LA (310) 231-4494, SAC (916) 448-2787, Fresno (559) 497-5109, SF (415) 981-9369, SD (619) 239-3884
  • Who is my representative/senator?: https://whoismyrepresentative.com

Action #2: Ask college and university presidents to boycott students from states that outlaw or limit the teaching of Critical Race Theory and the accurate portrayal of America’s history.

The GOP, whose only path to victory lies in keeping us divided through lies and fear, rightly sees critical race theory as an existential threat. Trump’s ban on CRT training for federal workers, and his bowdlerized 1776 commission were unceremoniouly ditched by Biden and the National Council for Social Studies has stated that teachers who use the 1619 project to “accurately depict the history of slavery in the United States, broaden the horizons of their students, and prepare citizens for a just democratic society.” So the GOP’s next obvious step was to initiate a state-by-state legislative attack on CRT to keep it from from reaching schools. Nearly a dozen states have introduced bills that suppress the use of critical race theory. Idaho’s governor has already signed one that supposedly prevents their schools and universities from “indoctrinating” students through CRT, a dangerously loose term that leaves teachers open for harassment and firing.

However, a weak link in their strategy is affluent Americans, for whom getting their children accepted into prestigious universities overrides any interest in their local legislators’ ridiculous edicts. What if America’s top universities simply flexed their power to save teachers and professors from harassment and another generation of our kids from an inaccurate and erroneous education, the results of which continue to divide us?

What if they just said “No. We won’t take kids from your state, be they public, private or home-schooled, until these antiquated laws preventing rigorous intellectual inquiry and the teaching of accurate history are removed.” Seriously. It never hurts to ask them.

Sample letter:

Write from your heart, write in your rhythm. We’ve included their contact emails here, along with some details about their leadership philosophies that you can reference in your letter, if you so choose. For our part, collecting this data impressed upon us that universities are well-aware of their responsibility to address diversity and intellectual freedom, as these issues figured in almost every leader’s biography. One university actively grappling with a problematic history, USC for example, is working to rename their Von KleinSmid Center, which honored a former school president who was also an ardent eugenicist and discriminator against Japanese-American students. Georgetown University’s still working on their “original sin” – the sale of 314 enslaved people.

Dear [President/Chancellor _______]

I’m writing you today to ask a favor. With every problem our nation faces, one looks for those who may wield the power or knowledge to set things straight. Several interesting things have happened in close succession recently, which prompts me to contact you as the leader of one of our country’s greatest educational institutions.

  • Idaho just finalized a law to make the “indoctrination” of critical race theory illegal in their state for both school and universities and nearly a dozen more states are pushing through similar suppressive and dangerously vague legislation.
  • 107-year-old Viola Fletcher, the oldest living survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, testified before Congress about her memories of that day, how it affected the rest of her life, and called for “justice.” Most Americans only learned about this incident from viewing HBO’s “Watchmen.”
  • Trustees at the University of North Caroline-Chapel Hill refused tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer prizewinning journalist, MacArthur genius grant recipient, Knight chair at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and originator of the 1619 project. (Ta-Nahesi Coates discusses it here: https://youtu.be/EgBo1aBaKvU)

The National Council for Social Studies has stated that teachers who use the 1619 project to “accurately depict the history of slavery in the United States, broaden the horizons of their students, and prepare citizens for a just democratic society.” As for me, an adult long past the grip of a classroom, the diligent work of academics exploring our darkest corners through the lens of critical race theory has not made me less patriotic, as some legislators fear, but more intensely proud of a country full of citizens of bravery, resilience and character.

[You can add here in that you are aware that the president/chancellor you’re addressing or their institution has prioritized diversity and/or reparative actions. See contact/bio list here.]

You may feel safe, in that your own state legislature is unlikely to pass legislation like Idaho’s, and I know you can’t force UNC trustees to change their decision on Hannah-Jones. However, I’m hoping that you will use your power as the leader of one of America’s most sought-after universities to stand up for all of our schools and universities and their threatened teaching professionals against this White supremacy-based suppression of intellectual inquiry – not with an announcement, but with an action.

In short, I’m asking you to boycott new students from any state that would censor historical inquiry, education and our long-overdue reckoning with our true heritage, be they publicly, privately or home-schooled. Let the state legislators behind this grandstanding deal with their well-deserved consequences – the calls, letters and office visits of outraged parents and students who never imagined that they would be on the wrong end of an frivolous, unjust or immoral law. 

I am an optimist. I refuse to believe that the country I love so much will collapse into a fascist nightmare ruled by lies and hate. I hope that my future includes reading books that analyze the many acts of resistance that saved us from that fate, including the famous boycott by America’s universities that stopped state censorship in its tracks.

Please, use your power and draw a line. Or as the inimitable and much-missed Rep. John Lewis said – “Make good trouble.”

Respectfully yours,

[Your name]

Quick Definitions of terms

What is history?

Napolean Bonaparte stated that “History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree on.” A more academic definition is included in this link – “History is an intellectual discipline practiced by historians who try to make sense of the past.”
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is now challenging who owns American history.

  • (Wapo) History isn’t just for patriots. We teach students how to understand the U.S., not to love it — or hate it

What is critical race theory?

(We’ve put in explanations from three sources…)

The Root

(theroot) “Former economics professor (he prefers the term “wypipologist”) Michael Harriot, who used Critical Race Theory to teach “Race as an Economic Construct,” explained it this way:

Race is just some shit white people made up.

Nearly all biologists, geneticists and social scientists agree that there is no biological, genetic or scientific foundation for race. But, just because we recognize the lack of a scientific basis for race doesn’t mean that it is not real. Most societies are organized around agreed-upon principles and values that smart people call “social constructs.” It’s why Queen Elizabeth gets to live in a castle and why gold is more valuable than iron pyrite. Constitutions, laws, political parties, and even the value of currency are all real and they’re shit people made up. 

To effectively understand anything we have to understand its history and what necessitated its existence. Becoming a lawyer requires learning about legal theory and “Constitutional Law.” A complete understanding of economics include the laws of supply and demand, why certain metals are considered “precious,” or why paper money has value. But we can’t do that without critically interrogating who made these constructs and who benefitted from them. 

One can’t understand the political, economic and social structure of America without understanding the Constitution. And it is impossible to understand the Constitution without acknowledging that it was devised by 39 white men, 25 of whom were slave owners. Therefore, any reasonable understanding of America begins with the critical examination of the impact of race and slavery on the political, economic and social structure of this country.

That’s what Critical Race Theory does…”

EdWeek.org

(EdWeek) “Critical race theory is an academic concept that is more than 40 years old. The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies. The basic tenets of critical race theory, or CRT, emerged out of a framework for legal analysis in the late 1970s and early 1980s created by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado, among others.A good example is when, in the 1930s, government officials literally drew lines around areas deemed poor financial risks, often explicitly due to the racial composition of inhabitants. Banks subsequently refused to offer mortgages to Black people in those areas. “Today, those same patterns of discrimination live on through facially race-blind policies, like single-family zoning that prevents the building of affordable housing in advantaged, majority-white neighborhoods and, thus, stymies racial desegregation efforts…

(Read “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America“)

Does critical race theory say all white people are racist? Isn’t that racist, too?

(EdWeek) “The theory says that racism is part of everyday life, so people—white or nonwhite—who don’t intend to be racist can nevertheless make choices that fuel racism. 

Some critics claim that the theory advocates discriminating against white people in order to achieve equity. They mainly aim those accusations at theorists who advocate for policies that explicitly take race into account. (The writer Ibram X. Kendi, whose recent popular book How to Be An Antiracist suggests that discrimination that creates equity can be considered anti-racist, is often cited in this context.)

Fundamentally, though, the disagreement springs from different conceptions of racism. CRT thus puts an emphasis on outcomes, not merely on individuals’ own beliefs, and it calls on these outcomes to be examined and rectified. Among lawyers, teachers, policymakers, and the general public, there are many disagreements about how precisely to do those things, and to what extent race should be explicitly appealed to or referred to in the process.

Here’s a helpful illustration to keep in mind in understanding this complex idea. In a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court school-assignment case on whether race could be a factor in maintaining diversity in K-12 schools, Chief Justice John Roberts’ opinion famously concluded: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But during oral arguments, then-justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said: “It’s very hard for me to see how you can have a racial objective but a nonracial means to get there.”…

What is going on with these proposals to ban critical race theory in schools? 

(EdWeek)”As of mid-May, legislation purporting to outlaw CRT in schools has passed in Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Tennessee and have been proposed in various other statehouses. The bills are so vaguely written that it’s unclear what they will affirmatively cover.  Could a teacher who wants to talk about a factual instance of state-sponsored racism—like the establishment of Jim Crow, the series of laws that prevented Black Americans from voting or holding office and separated them from white people in public spaces—be considered in violation of these laws? It’s also unclear whether these new bills are constitutional, or whether they impermissibly restrict free speech.

It would be extremely difficult, in any case, to police what goes on inside hundreds of thousands of classrooms. But social studies educators fear that such laws could have a chilling effect on teachers who might self-censor their own lessons out of concern for parent or administrator complaints. As English teacher Mike Stein told Chalkbeat Tennessee about the new law: “History teachers can not adequately teach about the Trail of Tears, the Civil War, and the civil rights movement. English teachers will have to avoid teaching almost any text by an African American author because many of them mention racism to various extents.”

The laws could also become a tool to attack other pieces of the curriculum, including ethnic studies and “action civics”—an approach to civics educationthat asks students to research local civic problems and propose solutions….”(Read the whole article here.)

American Bar Association

(From the ABA) “CRT is not a diversity and inclusion “training” but a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society that emerged in the legal academy and spread to other fields of scholarship. Crenshaw—who coined the term “CRT”—notes that CRT is not a noun, but a verb. It cannot be confined to a static and narrow definition but is considered to be an evolving and malleable practice. It critiques how the social construction of race and institutionalized racism perpetuate a racial caste system that relegates people of color to the bottom tiers. CRT also recognizes that race intersects with other identities, including sexuality, gender identity, and others. CRT recognizes that racism is not a bygone relic of the past. Instead, it acknowledges that the legacy of slavery, segregation, and the imposition of second-class citizenship on Black Americans and other people of color continue to permeate the social fabric of this nation.

Why is Critical race theory so important?

A person with no knowledge of the last few centuries of science and industry would be hardpressed to explain an electric light, an airplane, or a cell phone. In the absense of knowledge, he may deem them to be magic and perhaps even malign. Similarly, people deliberately cut off from an careful study of race and racism’s effect on their own society, will manufacture their own, inaccurate explanations for the results – attributing the gap in the health, maternal mortality, civil rights, policing, sentencing, education, and wealth of a minority group to an imagined inferiority of intelligence or character, rather than to a complex and interwoven system of oppression from which the majority profits.

This is why education on this theory is so important – unlike the statements from GOP legislators, critical race theory doesn’t teach that any race is inherently racist or is superior, but that race is ingrained in our history. Once you see it, much that was inexplicable becomes clear. The National Council for Social Studies has stated that teachers who use the 1619 project to “accurately depict the history of slavery in the United States, broaden the horizons of their students, and prepare citizens for a just democratic society.”

Who is threatened by Critical Race theory?

  • Trump: Trump is teaming with fellow racist Newt Gingrich to outline MAGA doctrine for the party. The latter stated that it would include “School choice, teaching American history for real, abolishing the ‘1619 Project,’ eliminating critical race theory and what the Texas legislature is doing. We should say, ‘Bring it on.’” This single sentence includes three ways to say that suppression of knowledge is vital to the GOP survival.
  • Trump’s lickspittles: (LA Times) “Last week, 20 Republican state attorneys general (representing seven of the 11 Confederate states), wrote a 10-page letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona objecting to proposed rules that would incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives into American history and civics programs…. A number of Republican-dominated legislatures have piled on as well, proposing or passing laws that would prohibit teaching that America was founded on principles other than equality. Isn’t it fascinating that some folks are so threatened by the idea that they benefit from the color of their skin that they can only see critical race theory as a racialized attack on them?” More here. (CBS) “Nearly a dozen states want to ban critical race theory in schools
  • Self-avowed White Nationalists/Supremacists: (Huffpost) “An Elementary School Teacher’s Secret Life As A White Nationalist Writer:”He [Bemjamin Welton] was meanwhile using multiple pen names to secretly author fascist screeds online, in some cases advocating violence to establish a whites-only ethnostate….Welton has expressed anger about the teaching of “critical race theory” in American schools. Last August, shortly before he began teaching at the Star Academy, he tweeted under a pseudonym that a return to American greatness “requires defunding critical race theory.” It’s clear from his pseudonymous writings where his real objection lies: criticism of white people.” 
  • GOP operatives exploiting ignorance of CRT and persistent sense that Whites are facing discrimination:

(Wapo) “What is critical race theory? Well, if you’re not entirely sure, you join 4 in 5 other Americans who held that opinion in a poll reported by the Atlantic earlier this month. Despite that result, a majority of Republicans say that it should not be taught in schools.

The Atlantic’s Adam Harris gives the credit for critical race theory’s emergence as an incessant right-wing talking point to Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. Rufo has repeatedly drawn attention to the term, which has increasingly been used as an umbrella phrase that inaccurately includes any number of unrelated concepts and arguments. Rufo sees that as advantageous, as Trump critic Charlie Sykes pointed out Monday. On Twitter, Rufo argued that the right had “frozen” perceptions of the term and was “steadily driving up negative perceptions.”

“We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” he continued. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

In other words, Rufo argues for the value of detaching “critical race theory” from critical race theory and burdening it with various other ideas that are unpopular — precisely the criticism that many opponents make. Like “Common Core” before it, the phrase is now a container vessel, in this case for any claim that can be framed as race-centric or critical of America past or present, or that affects educational curriculums.”

What is historical revisionism? (Hint – All history is revisionist.)

This term is often used derogatorily by GOP legislators to express their discomfort with CRT, so different than the bowdlerized history books of their youth. (Michael Harriot of the Root actually tracked down their history books, which he discussed in this enlightening essay.) (An overview of textbooks and history standards here.) Meanwhile, they are now creating their own ad-hoc revisionism on the Jan. 6th insurrections.

In academic circles, however, where CRT started, Legitimate historical revisionism is a common and not especially controversial process of developing and refining the writing of histories,” which usually involves challenging the established, accepted or traditional views held by professional scholars about an historical event, time-span or phenomenon. This is accomplished by introducing contrary evidence, or reinterpreting the motivations and decisions of the people involved. It can reflect new discoveries of fact, evidence, and interpretation, and in dramatic cases, can involve a reversal of long-standing moral judgments. Examples of revisionism include:

Updates and associated reading:

  • (theroot) Why White People Hate Critical Race Theory, Explained
  • (Wapo) Pressure builds on UNC board to grant tenure to journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones
  • (Teen Vogue) Campus Cancel Culture Freakouts Obscure the Power of University Boards
  • (Slate) The Real Reason UNC–Chapel Hill Is Withholding Tenure From Nikole Hannah-Jones – She’s the most recent victim of the right wing’s war on universities.
  • (NBC) Once overlooked in classrooms, Tulsa race massacre now seen as ‘important’ lesson in Oklahoma schools – “We have to teach this and face the ugliness of what I believe we’ve been too ashamed to talk about in the past,” the state Education Department said.
  • (bossip) Legislative Lies: Critical Race Theory Banned In 3 Conservative States So Fragile White Students Won’t Be Taught Truth About Their Ancestors

Resources:

Education of others is key here. Here’s a great resource you can share by facebook, or print out and share at school board meetings. This graphic can be downloaded from “Decolonize Your Curriculum” here.

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