Commentary

Nonsense about critical race theory is beginning to do real harm

August 11, 2021 6:45 am
William Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans, 1960. "After a Federal court ordered the desegregation of schools in the South, U.S. Marshals escorted a young Black girl, Ruby Bridges, to school." Note: Photo appears to show Bridges and the Marshals leaving the school. She was escorted both to and from the school while segregationist protests continued. (Photo: U.S. Department of Justice. As a work of the U.S. federal government, this image is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. § 101 and 105)

William Frantz Elementary School, New Orleans, 1960. “After a Federal court ordered the desegregation of schools in the South, U.S. Marshals escorted a young Black girl, Ruby Bridges, to school.” Note: Photo appears to show Bridges and the Marshals leaving the school. She was escorted both to and from the school while segregationist protests continued. (Photo: U.S. Department of Justice. As a work of the U.S. federal government, this image is in the public domain (17 U.S.C. § 101 and 105)

On Wednesday the Wisconsin Legislature’s Senate and Assembly education committees will hold a joint hearing on banning critical race theory in K-12 schools. 

Critical race theory — a previously obscure school of legal and academic thought that holds that racism isn’t just a matter of personal prejudice but deeply embedded in U.S. institutions through a historical pattern of discrimination — is the new Republican bugaboo. 

As if to demonstrate the existence of white fragility — another concept Republicans hate — Republican state officials around the country have been pushing restrictions on classroom discussions of systemic racism, sexism and white privilege that might make white students feel “guilt or anguish” because of past actions committed by members of their race or sex, to quote recent guidance promulgated by Tennesee’s Department of Education.

According to a report in Education Week, 11 states have passed laws that “drastically curtail the ways that districts can fight systemic and individual acts of racism, homophobia, and sexism in the classroom and how teachers can talk to students about the ways America’s government has historically discriminated against minorities.” Another 16 states have bills scheduled for debate next year.

So far only the Tennessee and Oklahoma education departments have released specific guidance on how anti-critical-race-theory bills should be enforced. 

The penalties for telling the truth are breathtaking. 

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Oklahoma teachers can have their teaching licenses revoked and schools can lose accreditation if there is evidence they taught about racism and sexism in violation of the state’s new statute. 

In Tennessee, under the new rules, school districts will be hit with fines of $1 million to $5 million for each violation of the state’s restrictions on classroom discussions. And examples of those violations are already piling up. Members of a group called Moms for Liberty filed a complaint in June demanding that Williamson County stop giving students the biography of Ruby Bridges, a Black girl who helped desegregate the New Orleans schools. Scenes depicting angry mobs of white people confronting Bridges made white students uncomfortable, according to the complaint, and such lessons “sow the seeds of racial strife, neo-racism (and) neo-segregation.” 

Here in Wisconsin, Republican legislators are using similar Orwellian language, seeking to ban “instruction or training that one race or sex is inherently superior to another or that an individual bears responsibility for acts committed in the past by others of the same race or sex.”

Like Tennessee, the Wisconsin bill comes with heavy financial penalties for teaching about racism, sexism and historical wrongs. Actually, Wisconsin’s penalties are higher. Under the proposal the state superintendent of public instruction must withhold 10% of state aid from a school board or charter school operator that is targeted by complaints from parents and, after being notified and given 10 days to reform, is still found to have violated the law.

In Antigo, according to the most recent state aid numbers from the Department of Public Instruction, that would mean a penalty of $14 million. Beloit would lose $6.7 million. Milwaukee, one of America’s most segregated cities and among the worst places in the country to raise a Black child, would face a whopping $53.6 million fine if teachers there dared to delve into the city’s history of racial discrimination.

Another bill that will get a committee hearing in the Assembly on Wednesday bans local and state governments from including “sex and race stereotyping in training provided to employees.” Republicans, who busted Wisconsin public employees’ unions, slashed departments and set off a massive state government brain drain are now stepping up to protect the fragile feelings of straight, white, male workers lest they be offended by lessons on harassment in the workplace.

Fortunately all of this nonsense will be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. 

And it is nonsense. White children are not in danger of having their feelings hurt by honest lessons about our country’s racist history. Employees can and should learn about harassment and how to combat a hostile work environment. 

These bad ideas are dangerous to our state both because they are bound to come back again, and perhaps reach the desk of a friendlier governor, and because they do just the opposite of what they claim. They do not lessen discrimination, they inflame it. As Cardell Orrin, the executive director of Stand for Children Tennessee told EdWeek, “There’s also a fear for young students of color who are in districts that are majority white and now there’s no protection for them and their white student peers in learning about truthful history and racism.” 

But the biggest danger is that Republican censorship helps keep racist ideology alive. That’s what the attack on critical race theory is really all about. The Republicans don’t have our nation’s first Black president to attack anymore. Instead, there’s an old white guy in the White House who is offering broadly popular proposals to shore up our nation’s infrastructure, expand access to health care and lift up working class people of all races. That’s damn dangerous to a GOP that has been hanging on to its working class, white base by distracting them from their own interests by stirring up racial hate.

Their answer hit upon by Republicans, including the leaders of the Wisconsin Legislature, is to find new ways to stir up more division and hate.

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.

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