Felicia Gustin
Jun 15 · 6 min read

The Latest Culture Wars: The Censoring of Teaching About Race and Racism

Educators gather in Washington DC on June 12th National #TeachTruth Day of Action (Photo from Zinn Education Project) Image Description: a multiracial group of people holding signs and a banner that reads #TeachTruth and #WeWontLie in front of the African American Civil War Memorial.

Attempts to censor discussions of race and racism are underway nationwide. GOP lawmakers in at least 21 states are either introducing legislation or have already passed bans that impact K-12 classrooms and in some cases, colleges and universities. At the federal level, 30 House Republicans signed on to a pair of bills that would prohibit diversity and anti-racism training in the military and federal agencies.

Critical race theory (CRT) examines the ways institutionalized racism and other systemic barriers to equality are embedded in U.S. society and how institutional and systemic inequities disproportionately affect people of color. CRT is the flashpoint in this debate over how U.S. history and racism can be addressed in classrooms, government agencies, trainings, and conferences. It is a catch-all threat to white people, lumping together multiculturalism, anti-racism, identity politics, diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts, and racial justice education.

From Arkansas, where a law was passed banning “divisive concepts,” to Idaho, where a new law withholds funds from any public schools that teach CRT, the conservative movement is gaining momentum. Texas wants to ban any classroom discussion of privilege and white supremacy. In Maine, a bill making its way through the legislative process would prohibit public school teachers from “engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom.” In Michigan, Senate Bill 460 specifically wants to censure The New York Times’ 1619 Project, describing it as anti-American, a sentiment echoed by a number of states also seeking to get the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project out of the classroom along with materials from the Zinn Education Project.

Oklahoma’s new law bans the teaching of CRT concepts in public schools and prohibits diversity and inclusiveness training programs in the state’s institutions of higher learning. In South Dakota, Republican legislators, including the governor, are pushing to ban funding for diversity, equity and inclusion at South Dakota’s public universities. “Teaching about broken treaties, racially-based tribal tax agreements, and Indigenous history may soon be deemed un-American if conservatives have their way,” writes Alaina Beautiful Bald Eagle from the state’s Democratic Party in the Rapid City Journal.

New guidelines adopted by the Florida Board of Education will police how teachers approach U.S. history, civics and government lessons. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called CRT the practice of “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.” In response, a teacher, speaking at the hearing before the ban was passed, asked, “How can I teach about the Civil Rights Movement without talking about racism?”

The attempt to ban discussions of racism and white supremacy are even taking place in blue states like California, where a new ethnic studies curriculum is already under attack. In Los Alamitos Unified School District, some parents say it promotes divisive, anti-white rhetoric and in a document promoting their position, charge that the new K-12 standards are “filled with hate for America and all America stands for.” In Northern California, a letter signed by 500 parents and sent to the Santa Clara County Board of Education claims that a district teacher training initiative “promotes a militant and anti-Western agenda,” and “encourages students to define themselves and others as either oppressors or victims.”

One group, the Nevada Family Alliance, even went so far as to suggest that teachers in the Washoe County School District should wear body cameras to ensure that they’re not teaching critical race theory.

These efforts to prohibit schools from teaching “divisive,” “racist,” or “sexist” concepts and organizing by white parents and communities to undermine equity education are the latest in the culture wars. And while the current bans are mostly limited to K-12 schools, the assault on higher education is also underway, particularly against liberal colleges and liberal faculty. Some state legislatures are vowing to bring the recent K-12 bans to public colleges and universities as well.

Who and what is behind this nationwide movement? Donald Trump fired one of the first volleys against CRT when he issued an executive order that banned federal agencies, as well as nonprofits and other recipients of federal funding, from conducting diversity and inclusion trainings. Though the order was challenged in the courts and revoked by President Biden his first day in office, Republicans continue to undermine efforts to foster diversity and inclusion. These bans in the educational arena go hand-in-hand with the GOP’s massive voter suppression efforts — 361 bills passed or being considered in 47 states.

The demographic shift is also stoking a white backlash against population changes as white people see themselves losing majority status. The massive protests last summer against the killing of George Floyd as well as demands to abolish racist policing furthered the politics of fear and outrage among some whites.

Then there are the myths and outright lies — that CRT indoctrinates students, that it teaches people to hate each other, that western civilization is under attack, and that white people are the victims of this “reverse racism.” Political pundits like Tucker Carlson and Dinesh D’Souza amplify this on Fox News, backed by think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Goldwater Institute, conservative organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Turning Point USA, and a multitude of wealthy right-wing ideologues like the Koch brothers who are bankrolling this rightwing offensive.

But people are fighting back. On June 12th, responding to a call by the Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School, thousands of educators nationwide pledged to continue teaching the truth and gathered publicly in several dozen cities. “The “Teach the Truth” national day of action was an outpouring of struggle and solidarity,” said one of the organizers, Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher and national leader of Black Lives Matter at School. “Educators made their pledge at historic sites to provide examples of the history that teachers would be required to lie about or omit if the GOP anti-history bills become law.”

Teachers unions at local, state, and national levels are gearing up to respond to the attacks as are racial justice organizations. Legal challenges are being prepared to counter this assault on the 1st amendment and academic freedom. The ACLU points out, “Using these laws to prevent talk about racism is anathema to free speech — a right many conservative lawmakers claim to hold dear. The First Amendment protects the right to share ideas, including the right of listeners to receive information and knowledge…Likewise, in the university setting, principles of academic freedom protect a professor’s right to make teaching choices without government interference.”

Yet while legal challenges make their way through the courts and as national responses are unveiled, it’s also going to be critical that people who support racial justice respond to these bans. At the local level, white parents and community members can especially play an important role in countering the tropes of white conservatives at PTA and school board meetings. All those who showed up to protest the police killings of Black and Brown people must also come out to protest these attempts to destroy free speech and truth-telling about racism. Teachers and college faculty are going to need a lot of support as they, once again, find themselves on the front lines of the culture wars. What will it mean for the future of this country if students are denied the truth about its past as well as contemporary realities? We all must show up to ensure that the voices of a few do not drown out our calls for justice while undermining our work for a more equitable nation.

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