by Eric J. Weiner
White people go around, it seems to me, with a very carefully suppressed terror of Black people—a tremendous uneasiness. They don’t know what the Black face hides. They’re sure it’s hiding something. What it’s hiding is American history. What it’s hiding is what white people know they have done, and what they like doing. White people know very well one thing; it’s the only thing they have to know. They know this; everything else, they’ll say, is a lie. They know they would not like to be Black here. They know that, and they’re telling me lies. They’re telling me and my children nothing but lies. —James Baldwin, 1979
What and how the Nation teaches its children says a lot about the political principles for which it stands. Through a complex mechanics of curriculum, pedagogy, assessment, discourse, and discipline, public school systems have always operated as cultural and ideological state apparatuses. This means that they help to reproduce the dominant ideological and cultural logic of the nation-state of which they are an integral part. The mechanics of public education change as the ideological and cultural morphology of the state changes. Yet, schools are also sites of struggle over the Nation’s dominant ideological and cultural interests. As Henry Giroux has shown, there is always resistance at the curricular, pedagogical, and discursive levels to the reproductive energies of the state. Teachers, students, parents, and other stake-holders are always, from one side of the ideological spectrum to the other, pushing back against the reproductive mechanics of the school. One articulation of resistance that has become a source of outrage and concern in our current times for many liberals and conservatives is the move by some states, districts and schools to use Critical Race Theory (CRT) to reframe what and how American history is taught.
CRT, explains Stephen Sawchuk, Associate Editor of Education Week, “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.” Within the context of schooling, CRT researchers and scholars “look at how policies and practices in K-12 education contribute to persistent racial inequalities in education, and advocate for ways to change them.” Researchers working within the framework of CRT over the past 40 years have shown, qualitatively and quantitatively, how systemic racism in the areas of housing, finance, law, healthcare, and education has disenfranchised, marginalized, oppressed, and dehumanized people of color from the Nation’s inception and continue today.
From educational achievement and generational wealth gaps to mortality indexes (infant through adult), official redlining practices, de facto segregation in schools, incarceration rates, and police shootings, the devastating toll of systemic and institutionalized racism is well-documented. It nevertheless is still rejected by many people on both sides of the aisle and across Latin and Asian minority groups. A typical response to the data is not that it is false per se (although this increasingly is the reaction from GOP-Trumpists), but that black and brown people are the cause of these gaps and inequalities. From this perspective, the systems and institutions are believed to be fair and working properly; it’s people of color who are the problem. Pocketbook liberals may acknowledge that the economic system is not where it should be, particularly with regards to opportunity and social mobility, but that we continue to make progress toward racial equality. They will point out the many people of color they see who have achieved academic, economic, and cultural success as proof that the essential systems of US society are not broken or are simply in need of reform.
In light of these ideological reactions to systemic and institutionalized racism, one of the challenges that critical educators face is not only teaching uncomfortable facts, but teaching students how to interpret those facts in a way that is grounded in reality and measured against professionally accepted standards of knowledge and analysis. This is made particularly challenging when there is little understanding about how ideology, power, and language work within the cultural sphere to normalize the familiar and stigmatize “difference.” Pedagogically mediating people’s experiences so that their political and cultural biases are confirmed, media and schools are two ideological spheres of influence that teach what Donaldo Macedo, in a refreshing example of academic clarity, calls “literacy for stupidification.” Giroux, in turn, argues that the GOP-Trumpist bloc is “manufacturing ignorance” in an effort to solidify power and undermine democracy with the “consent” of its constituency. In short, these efforts to produce what Robert N. Proctor and Londa Schiebinger identify as agnotology–crafted ignorance–as a strategic ploy of resistance to CRT, hamstrings educators who simply and directly want to teach students to think critically and historically about race and systemic/institutionalized racism in America.
The backlash against CRT from conservatives and liberals come from somewhat different places, but are connected by their refusal to confront the Nation’s allegiance to white supremacy at an ideological and cultural level. From the time of slavery, through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights struggles that continue today, conservatives and liberals, with few exceptions, refuse to acknowledge the need to reframe the dominant discourses of Manifest Destiny, American Exceptionalism, and Neoliberal Capitalism, three intersecting ideological constructs that erase, veil and/or rationalize the colonial legacy of the United States. Their refusal sometimes takes the form of appeals to color-blindness, some quoting, without irony, Dr. King’s famous line about not judging people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. The implication here is that any discussion and acknowledgement of the importance of race and racism in the history and current climate of the United States is racist. Some radical conservatives associate CRT with a form of cultural Marxism or Maoist ideology. As an example of what Dave Holmes recently called “elevated stupidity,” we are seeing within conservative media the relentless production of ignorance wrapped within the discourse of scholarly historical analysis.
Fox News recently ran a story about Xi Van Fleet, “who endured Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution before immigrating to the U.S. [and] ripped a Virginia school board at a public meeting Tuesday over its stubborn support of the controversial critical race theory.”
“’I’ve been very alarmed by what’s going on in our schools,’ Xi Van Fleet told the Loudoun County School Board members. ‘You are now teaching, training our children to be social justice warriors and to loathe our country and our history.’”
As reported by Fox News, “She likened CRT, which critics deride as a form of ‘neo-racism,’ to China’s Cultural Revolution, a Mao-led purge that left between 500,000 and 20 million people dead from 1966 to 1976.” Even within the context of the unabashed GOP-Trumpism of Fox News, it is still extraordinary to see CRT being aligned with Mao Zedong’s muderous campaign that took place in China from 1966-1976. These representations of “elevated stupidity” and “manufactured ignorance” depend upon the civic and historical illiteracy of their political constituencies. Feeding Fox News and other radical conservative media outlets content and language, conservative think-tanks help create an ideological echo chamber in which GOP-Trumpism’s agnotology can grow and spread throughout the country. For example, “The Heritage Foundation recently attributed a whole host of issues to CRT,” writes Sawchuk, “including the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and organizations, California’s recent ethnic studies model curriculum, the free-speech debate on college campuses, and alternatives to exclusionary discipline—such as the Promise program in Broward County, Fla., that some parents blame for the Parkland school shootings.” If these media outlets and think-tanks didn’t have such a committed and massive reader- and viewership (Fox News is the most watched cable “news” station in the country), such ungrounded and hyperbolic perspectives about CRT could be dismissed as simply delusional and miseducated. But when seen as a strategy of statecraft that has the pedagogical power to create a consensus of common ignorance, their efforts represent a clear threat to democracy.
How did we get from racism as a social construct to China’s Cultural Revolution and the Parkland school shootings? Over the course of two days in September 2020, Trump announced that the Department of Education (DOE) would investigate public schools to determine if they were using the Pulitzer-Prize winning curriculum, The New York Times’ “1619 Project” while also decreeing that federal employees would no longer receive professional development education about white privilege from the perspective of CRT. If the DOE discovered that schools were using the 1619 Project, Trump promised to defund those schools. Although he never had the authority to back-up his promise, the significance of his threat lay in the reassertion of states’ rights to demonize and criminalize CRT and surveil the development of curriculum and the pedagogical practices of educators.
CRT is the perfect foil for GOP-Trumpism. It hits all the right notes for a wedge issue that can help solidify and excite the GOP-Trumpist party for 2022 and return Trump or another GOP-Trumpist to the presidency in 2024. First, it is born and developed by social scientists, scholars and intellectuals, three groups of people (and primarily people of color) that GOP-Trumpists love to hate. At an ideological level, anti-intellectualism is a source of pride for GOP-Trumpists; they disdain the work of anyone who leans left of the radical right, which is almost everyone in higher education and anyone who addresses and/or acknowledges systemic inequality and inequity. The anti-intellectualism that animates GOP-Trumpism guarantees that both pundits and their ideological constituents won’t ever actually read the work of CRT (or anything else that brings into question its assumptions about country, opportunity, equality, race, guns, etc.) in its entirety.
Recasting the work of CRT as anti-American propaganda and un-American, as Trump did while he was still in office, is relatively easy if no one actually reads it. From a tactical perspective, it also gives GOP-Trumpists an excuse not to read it. Tweets and decontextualized soundbites replace any form of critical analysis, ensuring that CRT becomes the threat to the nation and white nationalism that GOP-Trumpism needs it to be. Politically, the combination of elevated stupidity and manufactured ignorance is a tactic that has worked in the past. Nazism manufactured ignorance, wrapped in the language of eugenics and nationalism concerning the Jews. Zionism manufactures ignorance wrapped in the language of history, sovereignty, and terrorism in relation to Hamas and the Palestinians. European colonialism throughout the Americas manufactured ignorance wrapped in the language of savagery, slavery, and exploration about Indigenous peoples. GOP-Trumpism manufactures ignorance about CRT and the ideology of white supremacy wrapped in the discourse of freedom, rights, and patriotism.
Second, CRT addresses the fundamental issue of white supremacy, race and racism in the United States. By focusing on the generational experiences of black and brown people within the ideology of white supremacy, white people are being asked to think about their experiences in the country as white people. Although CRT does not assume all white people are racists, it does put forth the view that all people, upon birth or entry, are measured within and against the intersecting formations of white supremacy that structure individual experience in the United States. This view shifts the optic from the individual to the group, from racial bias to racist systems. For liberals in particular, this move shifts the optic on racism from marginalization and oppression to white privilege. A focus on white privilege then brings into question the reality of meritocracy. White people historically have depended on the myth of meritocracy to hide their racial mediocrity, while putting forth ideas about cultural “disfunktion” in black and brown communities as a way to justify racial inequities. Once the veil is lifted on the myth of meritocracy, the principle of “equal opportunity,” essential to American Exceptionalism, becomes aspirational as opposed to descriptive.
For conservatives, CRT shifts the perspective from the individual to the group, from “human being” to “white human beings.” This creates cognitive dissonance by relocating whiteness within a socially constructed network of irrationally rationalized racial identifications and inequitable power relations; it de-normalizes whiteness, making the familiar strange. This might be one reason why we are hearing an increased level of hysterics and hyperbole from right-wing media outlets and GOP-Trumpist dominated state legislatures about CRT making white children feel bad about being white. A reasonable response to educational systems that people believe are designed to make them feel bad about their culture and race—regardless if this is true or not—is to manufacture a hegemonic discourse in which they can feel pride about their culture and race. For GOP-Trumpists, this discourse is animated by a commitment to the establishment of a state-sanctioned white nationalist curriculum in public schools, but one that veils its white supremacist ideology behind appeals to nationalism. The GOP-Trumpist response to CRT effectively shifts the focus from racism and white supremacy to patriotism.
GOP-Trumpism gives white people a language that allows them to reject the dis-/relocation of whiteness in nationalistic terms. Framed as a form of “America First” patriotism, their resistant to CRT becomes not a rejection of the evils of racism or a celebration of white supremacy, but a rejection of those people that hate “our” country. This expression of patriotism, from the perspective of CRT, is white nationalism wrapped in the blanket of “manufactured ignorance,” historical amnesia, and “elevated stupidity.” It played a large role in seeding the GOP-Trumpist coup attempt of January 6, 2021. But from the perspective of GOP-Trumpism, it is a reassertion of American Exceptionalism, Manifest Destiny, and white nationalism without apology.
Third, Trumpism uses CRT and the issue of ideology and systemic racism to reframe what is a national concern as a states’ rights issue. Historically, the GOP appealed to states’ rights in an effort to curb what it considered federal overreach. By putting the issue of what happens in the schools back into the hands of the state, Trump upset decades of renewed federal interest in “reforming” public education. However wrongheaded Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s “Race to the Top” reforms were, they made public education a federal issue. Trump’s move was to essentially say the left is brainwashing “our” children through anti-American propaganda and it is the states’ right to decide if they want that to continue to happen in their schools. This was a powerfully effective political strategy—not unlike Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” or what 19th century Southern Democrats had done with regards to slavery and Reconstruction—as it hedged ideological and political dominance at the federal level against its influence at the state level. For a party that is known for being dangerously short-sighted on healthcare, the economy, and the environment, GOP-Trumpists are showing uncharacteristic foresight with regard to reframing CRT as a states’ rights issue.
In the shadow of Trump’s loss and failed coup attempt, states are currently passing legislation to ban CRT in their public schools. Natural allies in terms of economic interests across race and ethnicity are pitted against each other, CRT being the wedge. As reported by Sawchuk in Education Week, “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.” By making CRT a states’ rights issue, Trump guaranteed that the white nationalist doctrine of GOP-Trumpism, even in the aftermath of his election loss, would survive in the form of curriculum and pedagogical policy at the state level. Central to GOP-Trumpism, this move also reaffirmed more generally states’ right to decide what and how children should be taught. GOP-Trumpism is using CRT to erase efforts to establish national curriculum standards across a range of disciplines. It’s a move that has far-reaching consequences for public education and, by association, the future viability of democracy.
Lastly, by framing CRT as un-American and part of an educational campaign to indoctrinate young people to become social justice warriors who hate “our” country, GOP-Trumpism divides pocketbook Democrats from their more socially liberal peers. As Davis Leonhardt writes in the New York Times, “A recent analysis of the 2020 election by three Democratic groups argued that the party lost Black, Latino and Asian American support because it did not have a sharp enough economic message.” CRT is not innocent here. As Cornel West argues,
We lost sight of attacking issues of poverty, class…and moved into an obsession with having black faces in high places. As long as we had those black faces in high places, the poor could live symbolically through them, vicariously through them. Or those black faces themselves, middle class and upper middle class, could claim that somehow they were the index of progress. Whereas the real index of progress is ensuring that when you’re living in poverty, you have a quality education for everybody––not ensuring you have more kids at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Without a more focused analysis on systems of economic inequity, CRT misses potential opportunities for support across working class communities of various ethnicities and cultures. Within the discourse of CRT, race and class need to be rigorously linked in telling the story of America’s colonial history. Otherwise, GOP-Trumpism will be able to continue to exploit the social fears and conservative dispositions of White, Latin, and Asian working class Americans on the backs of African Americans. “American working-class voters tend to be culturally conservative and economically progressive,” writes Leonhardt. “Polls show that most favor abortion restrictions, tight border security and well-funded police departments—as well as expanded Medicare and pre-K, a higher minimum wage, federal spending to create jobs and tax increases on the rich.” Although there are tensions between some of these issues and CRT, we must find enough common concerns to build a formidable working class constituency of diverse peoples that will be able to collectively push back against the unforeseen terror that GOP-Trumpism represents to democracy here and abroad.
I will conclude with a reprint of the JOINT STATEMENT ON LEGISLATIVE EFFORTS TO RESTRICT EDUCATION ABOUT RACISM AND AMERICAN HISTORY.
June 16, 2021
We, the undersigned associations and organizations, state our firm opposition to a spate of legislative proposals being introduced across the country that target academic lessons, presentations, and discussions of racism and related issues in American history in schools, colleges, and universities. These efforts have taken varied shape in at least 20 states, but often the legislation aims to prohibit or impede the teaching and education of students concerning what are termed “divisive concepts.” These divisive concepts as defined in numerous bills are a litany of vague and indefinite buzzwords and phrases including, for example, “that any individual should feel or be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological or emotional distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.” These legislative efforts are deeply troubling for numerous reasons.
First, these bills risk infringing on the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn. The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States. Purportedly, any examination of racism in this country’s classrooms might cause some students “discomfort” because it is an uncomfortable and complicated subject. But the ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public. Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement. Suppressing or watering down discussion of “divisive concepts” in educational institutions deprives students of opportunities to discuss and foster solutions to social division and injustice. Legislation cannot erase “concepts” or history; it can, however, diminish educators’ ability to help students address facts in an honest and open environment capable of nourishing intellectual exploration. Educators owe students a clear-eyed, nuanced, and frank delivery of history so that they can learn, grow, and confront the issues of the day, not hew to some state-ordered ideology.
Second, these legislative efforts seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements. These regulations constitute an inappropriate attempt to transfer responsibility for the evaluation of a curriculum and subject matter from educators to elected officials. The purpose of education is to serve the common good by promoting open inquiry and advancing human knowledge. Politicians in a democratic society should not manipulate public school curricula to advance partisan or ideological aims. In higher education, under principles of academic freedom that have been widely endorsed, professors are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject. Educators, not politicians, should make decisions about teaching and learning.
Knowledge of the past exists to serve the needs of the living. In the current context, this includes an honest reckoning with all aspects of that past. Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today, an exchange that should take place inside the classroom as well as in the public realm generally. To ban the tools that enable those discussions is to deprive us all of the tools necessary for citizenship in the 21st century. A white-washed view of history cannot change what happened in the past. A free and open society depends on the unrestricted pursuit and dissemination of knowledge.
American Historical Association
American Association of University Professors
Association of American Colleges & Universities
ACPA-College Student Educators International
Agricultural History Society
Alcohol and Drugs History Society
American Anthropological Association
American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education
American Council of Learned Societies
American Educational Research Association
American Federation of Teachers, AFL-CIO
American Folklore Society
American Library Association
American Philosophical Association
American Political Science Association
American Society for Environmental History
American Society for Theatre Research
American Sociological Association
American Studies Association
Association for Ancient Historians
Association for Asian American Studies
Association for Documentary Editing
Association for Spanish and Portuguese Historical Studies
Association for the Study of Higher Education
Association for Theatre in Higher Education
Association of College and Research Libraries
Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges
Association of Research Libraries
Association of University Presses
Association of Writers & Writing Programs
Business History Conference
Center for Research Libraries
Central European History Society
Chinese Historians in the United States
Coalition of Urban & Metropolitan Universities
College Art Association
Committee on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, & Transgender History
Comparative & International Education Society
Conference on Asian History
Conference on Faith and History
Consortium of Humanities Centers and Institutes
Czechoslovak Studies Association
Forum on Early-Modern Empires and Global Interactions
French Colonial Historical Society
German Studies Association
Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities
Historical Society of Twentieth Century China
Immigration Ethnic History Society
John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education
Labor and Working-Class History Association
Middle East Studies Association
Modern Language Association
NAFSA: Association of International Educators
National Association for College Admission Counseling
National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education
National Association of Diversity Officers in Higher Education
National Coalition for History
National Council for the Social Studies
National Council of Teachers of English
National Council on Public History
National Women’s Studies Association
Organization of American Historians
Phi Beta Kappa Society
Radical History Review
Rhetoric Society of America
Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media
Shakespeare Association of America
Society for Austrian and Habsburg History
Society for Classical Studies
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era
Society for the Study of Early Modern Women and Gender
Society of Architectural Historians
Society of Civil War Historians
Southern Historical Association
The Freedom to Read Foundation
Urban History Association
Western History Association
World History Association
 Because facts have little explanatory power on their own, they require an interpretative frame to become meaningful. In the field of epistemology, this is an uncontroversial statement and does not make facts perspectival. In other words, critical analysis (hermeneutics, CRT, negative dialectics, Critical Theory, semiotics, etc.) doesn’t change what the facts of a case are, but frames them in a way in which their meanings are contextualized and, therefore, variable (note that this is different than relative). Not all meanings however are equal, although the move to construct false equivalences tries to suggest they are. Kellyanne Conway, the U.S. Counselor to Trump, exploited this epistemological nuance when she cynically put forth the Orwellian idea that there can be “alternative facts.” We are, of course, still struggling to recover from the cynicism that animates GOP-Trumpism. There are no alternative facts, but there are multiple interpretative frameworks that can be used to try and understand what the facts are trying to tell us. Some of these interpretations are more grounded in reality than others. Through a process of critical thinking, students learn to evaluate the efficacy and accuracy of different interpretative frameworks for analyzing social things.