Critical Race Theory is at the center of political debate and attacks by the GOP. An intellectual way of looking at systemic racism, Critical Race Theory, is rooted in the notion that racism is systemic. This theory also suggests racism is intertwined into every area of American life. Republicans are currently attacking the teaching of Critical Race Theory saying it is divisive and racist. Opponents say Critical Race Theory promotes Anti-American views and white guilt. Several states have passed legislation banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory forcing some academic institutions to cancel classes.
The 1619 Project by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Nikole Hannah Jones, helped to reignite interest in how history is taught in the classrooms. With the recent police-related homicides, racial unrest, and protests, educators are looking at ways to be more inclusive in teaching history that includes the stories and perspectives of marginalized groups.
In September 2020, then President Trump, a vocal critic of the 1619 project, created the 1776 Commission designed to promote “Patriotic Education”. He directed federal agencies to stop training directed towards diversity and inclusion. That directive was later blocked by a federal judge and overturned by President Biden. As of recent weeks, Florida, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, Arkansas, Idaho, and Tennessee have passed or introduced legislation aimed at banning Critical Race Theory in the classrooms. At a State Board of Education meeting in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis said, “As the Governor of Florida, I love this state, and I love my country. I find it unthinkable that there are other people in positions of leadership in the federal government who believe that we should teach kids to hate our country. We will not stand for it here in Florida.”
Eric Ward, a race and extremism scholar and senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center says these attacks on Critical Race Theory are more than racially charged. He believes the GOP is attempting to censor education in American schools and inserting divisive national politics into local communities. The Chicago Defender spoke with Eric Ward about why the GOP is attacking Critical Race Theory and what that means for the future of public-school education in America.
Chicago Defender: It seems this began with former President Trump’s attacks on the 1619 project, but it has steamrolled. Why is there a rush to restrict the truth from being taught?
Eric Ward: It absolutely is. It is because of three things. The first has to do with the incredible cultural, and political impact that the Black Lives Matter movement has had in this country on racial equity discourse over the last year. The second is the arrival of the New York Times 1619 project, a Pulitzer-winning project that brought great insight into the impact and legacy of slavery and discrimination against black people on American social conditions. Lastly, is the arrival of Donald Trump to the national political scene. He galvanized and built a movement grounded upon racist dog whistles. That is, that is how we get here. It is fear. It is fear from those I call racial exclusionists. They are feeling anxiety.
Chicago Defender: Anxiety? How so?
Eric Ward: There is a significant shift in American attitude, and it has completely terrified those who have only been able to build their power on racial resentment.
Chicago Defender: That is interesting. It strikes me as ironic that in the last two years, people have shown interest in these “hidden” stories of history more than ever before. Whether it is the 1619 project, the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre, there are so many who say, I never knew about this. You would think we would be leaning towards learning more about our history; good, bad, and ugly. What is the harm of telling the truth about where we are as a country? What does this mean for students who receive “bits and pieces” of their history? These attacks seem to make this even harder.
Eric Ward: It makes it impossible; it falsifies history, it creates a false memory. History is always a perspective. The way that we better understand history, is by including multiple perspectives. That is what the 1619 project does. That is what conversations on racial equity, do in schools. Just because some have anxiety because they were denied a fuller perspective of history does not mean that anxiety should be projected onto our children. The late John Lewis once said, “if democracy exists in America, it is largely through the sacrifice of black people who have fought and died in this country to make our society live up to its highest aspirational values”. We must understand we are a strong nation, and we are a strong country. If telling the truth about history, is going to break this country, then perhaps we are not as strong as we think we are. I just simply do not believe that.
The truth is our perspectives on history, allow us to move forward together. It allows us to understand what has happened in the past, right, so that we can understand the impact that it has had have had on us in the present, right, so that we can move forward together. And that is what most people want to do.
Chicago Defender: How do these recent attacks on Critical Race Theory play in politics?
Eric Ward: This is not just about racial equity being taught in schools, this is also a cynical ploy by MAGA and Trumpism to keep its base mobilized. Trump figured out early on that within the Republican party that there was a strong level of negative perceptions around African Americans. This false conspiracy about critical race theory is simply a ploy to keep that base mobilized. They do not have anything else, except racist dog whistles, attacking the LGBTQ community, attacking immigrants and migrants, etc. That is all they have left.
Chicago Defender: The timing of these attacks, especially as we head towards the elections in 2022, seems to keep their base engaged?
Eric Ward: Absolutely. They have nothing to go after the Biden administration on. By all accounts, Biden’s approval ratings are highly favorable. So, this is about trying to galvanize that base, to keep them mobilized for the midterm elections. The Republican Party, driven by that racial resentment, does well at the local level in those races and a campaign like this allows them to organize that base. Basically, they are instilling fear into parents and manipulating those parents, to make sure that they are the fodder for the votes that they need at the midterm.
Chicago Defender: So, what can be done? What can parents do to stop this?
Eric Ward: First, we must draw a moral barrier against hate. We must make a commitment that we are not going to allow our children to be the exploitable political issue for other people’s racial resentment. We must reject the big lie. Second, we are all taxpayers. We pay into our schools with our tax dollars for our public schools to function. Public schooling is important. We must make sure that teachers and educators understand that we support them. Send a note or post something on social media to let those educators know that the work they do, educating our children to make them better citizens is highly valuable.
We have to continue to mobilize politically. We cannot lean away from the hard conversation on racial inequality. It is not a radical conversation. Talking about racial equity is not controversial. We must defend freedom of speech and at this moment, and we must defend accurate historical memory. We must vote and let school board members and elected officials know exactly where we stand, what we expect from them, and we should hold them accountable. These big lies carry big repercussions.
Chicago Defender: We are seeing these big lies play out on a national stage in various incidents right now.
Eric Ward: Yes, but there are a shift and people are rejecting these big lies. That is what has this far-right, this white nationalist movement, so worried. Black America continues to open the space around this discussion, and more and more white Americans are listening.
Danielle Sanders is a journalist and writer living in Chicago. Find her on social media @DanieSanders20.