Jan 28, 2022

Republicans' response to CRT is worse than I thought

Newly elected Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. Photo: World Economic Forum / Christian Clavadetscher
Newly elected Virginia Gov. Glen Youngkin. Photo: World Economic Forum / Christian Clavadetscher

The bills sweeping the country are massive oversteps and antithetical to rightly held conservative stances.

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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In May of 2021, I wrote about the critical race theory debate for the first time in Tangle.

My writing in that initial piece could be summed up, briefly, like this: CRT can manifest itself in positive and negative ways, but it was true that there were troubling stories of how "anti-racism" was being taught to elementary school kids (like students being lined up based on race or taught that they are one thing or another because of how they look).

However, I essentially took the position that banning anything in academic settings was a bad idea and that states were overstepping. I summarized some positive experiences I’ve had in engaging CRT ideas, wrote that these bills banning its teaching were solving for a problem that doesn’t currently exist (i.e. CRT in K-12 schools is not common), and wrote that U.S. education could improve by engaging in honest conversations about race — and our country’s history with it — more often rather than less.

A week or two later, after hundreds of email exchanges with readers and another week of fever pitched, vociferous debate among American intellectuals, I re-visited that first writing in a piece titled "Addressing my own bad arguments about CRT."

In this piece, I apologized for a few misleading or incomplete remarks, admitted that CRT in K-12 was more common than I might have thought and conceded that the laws being passed to address these teachings varied widely (so generalizing them as "all bad" was inappropriate). I also acknowledged that objections to critical race theory and anti-racism in K-12 schools were not just coming from the right, but also from some on the left. I took the position that even if these anti-racism-gone-wrong teachings were rare, that didn't mean we shouldn't stop this from proliferating more, and wrote that there was a good argument that states had a right to do this (given the control state legislatures are granted over education). Ultimately, I took a more muted position, essentially saying that we needed to wait and see how this would play out.

It has been eight months since I wrote that, I think I've seen enough. And I believe things are panning out worse than I initially feared.

Critical race theory is not an easy thing to define. It's an academic movement that recognizes systemic racism in American society and examines how that racism impacts the law, institutions and outcomes. The movement began in the 1970s, and argues that many social problems are influenced more by societal structures than individual or psychological factors. CRT teaches that racism is an everyday experience for people of color, and that white supremacy maintains its power through our systems of government and law. It puts a premium on race's role in society.

In the current public lexicon, though, CRT has become an umbrella term to essentially cover anything that promotes "anti-racism," including the likes of Ibram X. Kendi, "woke ideology," and now even your insider-y, highly-educated progressive discourse around sex and gender issues.

A primary concern for opponents of CRT is its prominence in K-12 and, specifically, K-5 education. Christopher Rufo, who is probably the best-known anti-CRT activist (and has discussed openly his hopes to re-brand it as an existential threat), has done the laborious and valuable work of documenting bizarre cases of "CRT" or "anti-racism" gone awry in schools across the U.S. Here is one such example, from a Buffalo school district lesson plan:

In kindergarten, teachers ask students to compare their skin color with an arrangement of crayons and watch a video that dramatizes dead black children speaking to them from beyond the grave about the dangers of being killed by “racist police and state-sanctioned violence.” By fifth grade, students are taught that America has created a “school-to-grave pipeline” for black children and that, as adults, “one million Black people are locked in cages.”

This, to me, is deranged and counter-productive. Kindergarten students being made to arrange themselves by crayon colors and watch videos instilling fear of police is not our path out of racism, divisiveness, fear, police brutality, or any of the other harms of present day society. How popular such lessons are, especially among kindergarteners, is not entirely clear, but I suspect it's the exception and not the rule. Again: Kudos to Rufo for doing the work of trying to uncover and flesh out these stories. I think they are important.

It's also true that some of the laws that have been pushed amidst this CRT debate seem totally reasonable on the surface. This one, for instance, is a Utah curriculum transparency bill that requires schools to make their teaching materials available online. It's a transparency law with the fundamental underpinning that parents should know what their kids are being taught if they want to.

To be clear, though, I'm not crazy about this bill. I think teachers have enough stress to deal with without parents — many of whom have no educational experience and often no expertise in the specific subject matter being taught — combing through course materials for things they don't like. That's doubly true as we're coming out of the pandemic, as teachers have been dealing with an incredible number of burdens: Depressed, anxious kids. Staffing issues. Students who are behind. Their own health and safety. The threat of school shootings. Angry parents. And, oh yeah, Covid-19 protocols.

It also seems a bit redundant. My parents knew what I was learning in school because they asked me how my day was and looked at my homework and gleaned the kinds of things I was learning. Most core curriculum is already available online for public school parents to see if they'll take the time to look for it. In the district I grew up in, parents could sit in on classes if they wanted and had regular opportunities to come meet their kids' teachers. In fact, they were encouraged to, and many didn't. As one teacher told me this week, “We’re not hiding anything.”

Once, I had a biology teacher in middle school who taught "alternative" theories to evolution that were based in creationism and opened his class with the statement that he believed man was created in the image of G-d. My parents learned about it because I told them, and it turned into a fun, educational, weeks-long battle between me, my parents, my cousin and my teacher debating whether his religious beliefs belonged in a biology class. It was spirited and interesting, not antagonistic and not with the force of the law behind it. But those were the good old days.

The kind of law like the one in Utah feels like helicopter parenting 2.0 with a dash of "how to make teachers’ lives worse." But... It's fine. I don't like it, and I wouldn't vote for it, but it's not some kind of existential threat that puts my hackles up. If Utah legislators elected by people in Utah want this to be the law, and parents support it, then that's the world we live in.

That, too, is a compelling argument for all of this: Legislators at the state level are elected by the people. Those legislators have the authority to make laws pertinent to public education. If parents don't like those laws, we have a system for that: elections. I get it.

With all this throat clearing out of the way, one of my biggest concerns when the initial talk about "banning" CRT began was that important pieces of literature would end up being censored — and that students and teachers would be deprived of access to a holistic educational experience. In essence, I worried that Republican state legislatures would use the cover of anti-CRT law to start censoring educational material that they disagreed with politically, but was perfectly fine to be in schools and libraries.

And that's exactly what they've done.

One of the most egregious examples of this overstep — the one that prompted me to sit down and start writing them down — came out of Oklahoma just after Christmas.