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What’s really behind the continued attacks on critical race theory

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

They’re at it again — the continuing shrill attack by the GOP and the right-wing echo chamber on the strawman issue of critical race theory. This time it’s by white Mississippi GOP state senators. All except two senators voted to ban the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s public schools. The bill craftily did not mention race theory, though. It blandly forbids public schools in the state from forcing students to agree “that any sex, race, ethnicity, religion or national origin is inherently superior or inferior.” The only reason the vote to pass the bill was not unanimous was that the senate’s Black Democratic members boycotted the vote.

Now, keep in mind, not a single public school in Mississippi has anything remotely close to a curriculum that compels students to learn about race and racism and its pernicious effects. Even the bill’s sponsor stumbled and bumbled in trying to answer why the bill was needed to oppose something that doesn’t even exist. The best he could come up with is that the legislation was a safeguard against the future. Huh?

At first glance, the Mississippi vote is comically ludicrous. Only a tiny handful of school districts, all in major urban areas such as Washington, D.C., have anything in their curriculum that encourages students to think about and discuss racial issues in the classroom. Yet beneath the seeming silliness of hysteria over what is a non-issue, there is a cold, cynical, political calculation. It can be summed up in two words: intimidation and control.

First, a quick thumbnail sketch of what is causing conservatives to raise the roof on a spurious issue. Critical race theory is a dated term that’s a scholarly euphemism for defining, discussing and combating racism and its effects. There is nothing particularly new or radical about this.

This all changed with Trump. He demanded a cease-and-desist for any school district and/or teacher that dared compel students to be subject to “left-wing indoctrination” — he meant any mention of the history of racial bias in America.

Trump railed that this fanned the very racism that America had supposedly long gotten past. Worse, it scapegoated whites as the perennial bad guys for all of America’s racial sins. Trump followed his rant with an executive order that virtually wiped out any diversity training for federal employees.

A pack of conservative writers, academics, bloggers, politicians, and especially, the Fox network, then piled in on the issue. They screamed that critical race theory was a new insidious plot to indoctrinate students, twist history and malign whites as the fount of all racial evil. GOP-controlled state legislatures quickly took the cue. The backlash has gained furious steam. According to an Education Week survey, two dozen states have introduced bills or taken steps to restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Mississippi is the latest.

The conservative attackers’ real concern is not that teaching about America’s past and present history of racial and social injustice will poison the minds of minority students. Their concern is that it could influence a lot of white elementary and high schoolers. This could have a far-reaching political consequence: It could decrease the generational racial polarization that the GOP banks on to maintain political power and control in a nation that is on the verge of becoming an ethnic minority-
majority nation.

The attackers understand this. The ultra-right Heritage Foundation provides intellectual, legal and financial muscle to counter so-called liberal and racial policy issues. It has churned out a set of position papers that cite 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, LGBTQ clubs in schools, diversity training in federal agencies and organizations and California’s ethnic studies model curriculum, to name a few, as supposedly the product of activists and teachers instilling young people with the evil-whites brainwash.

Opponents have latched onto and shamelessly mangled the color-blind mythology that any talk of racial bigotry and bias and its continued devastating impact on American society is racism. This deft turn has made legions of school districts wary of touching the forbidden subject in any way.

Mississippi won’t be the last state to look silly passing a bill to ban something that doesn’t exist. Anytime the issue is racism, expect more silly stuff from those who see a threat in any discussion, or worse, action to do something about it.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.