Updated: Jul 21
Right-Wing Campaign Tries to Prevent Teaching Facts of History
This is Part I of a three-part series
By Geoff Mirelowitz and Argiris Malapanis
Over the past year a sharp debate has broken out over how to teach U.S. history. At its center are virulent attacks on critical race theory (CRT). “Now suddenly the term is everywhere,” wrote the New York Times on November 8, 2021.
Leonard Pitts, a syndicated columnist who is African American, put this in perspective in a July 20, 2021, column. “I have forgotten more about race than most people have ever known. Apologies if that sounds like braggadocio,” Pitts said. “Yet until maybe six months ago, I had never heard of ‘critical race theory.’ ”
His next point is compelling: “A search of the Nexis database finds that the term ‘critical race theory’ appeared in U.S. newspapers 1,361 times in the 21 years between January 2000 and New Year’s Day, 2021. It has appeared 6,000 times in the six months since [Emphasis added].” The term is “everywhere” because demonizing it is now one of the primary talking points for U.S. conservatives and the right wing.
Critical race theory, which the New York Times describes as “a graduate-level academic framework that encompasses decades of scholarship,” is primarily a course of study at the university level. Its originators are not demanding it replace the curriculum in elementary schools or high schools. Nor is it the only approach on the subject at the graduate level. These facts do not matter to those who attack it.
The very fact that academics developed CRT is used by the right wing to discredit it. Rightist ideologues and politicians now attribute the study of anything that has to do with racism, at any level of education, to the “liberal elite” and academics who, they claim, seek to “indoctrinate” young people with anti-American and unpatriotic “poison.”
What is critical race theory?
“Critical race theory originated over 30 years ago among legal scholars,” Pitts explains accurately. “[I]t holds that race is a social—not a scientific—construct and offers a framework for understanding the role of systemic racism in the law and in legal institutions. It is taught, if at all, in law school—not high school.”
Yet in the recent race for governor in Virginia last November, the victorious Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin made it “a signature issue,” reported the British daily The Guardian, in an article headlined “How did Republicans turn critical race theory into a winning electoral issue.”
“What we won’t do is teach our children to view everything through the lens of race,” declared Youngkin at an October campaign event. “On day one, I will ban critical race theory.” Indeed, Youngkin’s first executive order issued January 15, 2022, after assuming office, prohibited the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts,” including critical race theory.
However, there is no evidence that CRT is actually taught in a single school in Virginia. Nor is there evidence it is taught in any public elementary or high school districts across the country.
It is true that all history cannot be understood solely “through the lens of race.” There are certainly other factors. But it is equally true that issues of “race” and class are often intertwined and are deeply relevant to many aspects of social, economic, and political life in the United States. Moreover, for most of U.S. history, public and private education has ignored, distorted, and consciously hidden the true story of African Americans and the ways it is central to the country’s development.
Malcolm X on Afro-American History
For this reason, one of the most important speeches by Malcolm X, one of the 20th century’s outstanding revolutionary leaders, has remained in print for decades as the book Malcolm X on Afro-American History. Malcolm presented that talk to a meeting of the Organization of Afro-American Unity in January 1965.
Malcolm explained why this history is so important. “We’re going to have a series that will beg to have a series that will be
designed to give us a better understanding of the past, I should say a better understanding of the past, in order that we may understand the present and be prepared for the future,” he said.
Youngkin is not alone in campaigning against critical race theory. Conservatives and right-wing figures across the country have echoed his pledge to ban a theory that is generally not studied below the university level.
“Why are states banning critical race theory?” was the headline of an article published on the Brookings Institution website. The article documents the nine U.S. states that had passed such legislation as of November 2021: Arizona, Idaho, Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. Arizona’s Supreme Court overturned the statute in November. It is noteworthy that only two of these states “actually mention the words ‘critical race theory’ explicitly,” says the article, noting that nearly “20 additional states have introduced or plan to introduce similar legislation.”
The White House launched an opening salvo in this campaign in September 2020, when Donald Trump was still president. A memo from the Executive Office of the President issued by then Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Russell Vought concluded: “The divisive, false, and demeaning propaganda of the critical race theory movement is contrary to all we stand for as Americans and should have no place in the Federal government.”
This followed a series of appearances by right-wing ideologue Christopher Rufo on Fox News. In mid-August 2020, Rufo told conservative TV show host Tucker Carlson he was “declaring a one-man war against critical race theory in the federal government and I’m not going to stop…until we can abolish it within our public institutions.” On August 20, Rufo tweeted, “My goal is simp
le: to persuade the President of the United States to issue an executive order abolishing critical race theory in the federal government.”
On September 5, after the OMB issued its memo, Trump tweeted: “This is a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue. Please report any sightings so we can quickly extinguish.”
This campaign against critical race theory picked up steam in early 2021 in the aftermath of the January 6 riot and attack on U.S. Congress. It is not unreasonable to see that as an effort to shift the focus of political discussion at a time when the right wing was on the defensive.
Backlash against 2020 mass anti-racist protests
What explains the efforts by Trump, Youngkin, and others to weaponize this issue? Part of the answer lies in the historic explosion of action against police brutality and racism in the United States after the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
In one of the largest waves of political protest in U.S. history, millions of people of all skin colors registered their deep opposition to the murders of Floyd, Breanna Taylor, and others across the country—disproportionately African Americans—and the practices of police departments throughout the country that make such violence commonplace.
A consequence of these powerful actions was greater attention to these examples of racism, and others, as well as widespread discussion about them. Tens of millions, especially young people, began to ask at demonstrations, in classrooms, and elsewhere: “Why are Blacks and other people of color so often the victims of cop violence?” “What is the source of racism?” and “How can we end it?”
The wave of protests subsided, in large part because the Democratic Party—whose officials sought to identify to some degree with those who took to the streets—used its resources and influence to persuade those who turned out that the next step was to re-direct their energy to electing Joe Biden and other Democrats to public office in November 2020. The result is that cop violence has continued unabated but mass protest has waned.
Those who defend the status quo are threatened by both the protests and the discussion the street actions generated.
The right-wing effort to demonize CRT can be understood as a backlash to the protests and their impact. It is a response to the renewed interest in grasping the source of racism and how to uproot it.
In order to sow confusion and divert the discussion that quickly spread throughout U.S. culture and society, the right-wing ideologues organized a nationwide campaign. Mainstream conservatives, like Youngkin, joined rightists like Rufo in attacking critical race theory. Rather than an overt defense of white supremacy, “Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News and other rightwing media,” wrote The Guardian accurately, “have turned it [CRT] into a catch-all buzzword for any teaching in schools about race and American history.”
Increasingly, conservative media and politicians deem any discussion of the history of slavery, segregation, or other racist discrimination in the United States to be “unpatriotic,” “divisive,” and even “racist.” The use of such terminology is not accidental. It’s a deliberate attempt to shift the discussion that exploded when millions poured into the streets in 2020 to fight cop violence and racism.
Laying the groundwork for this cultural war
Rufo told Carlson on FOX TV that CRT is a kind of “cult indoctrination.”
The president of the Loudoun County, Virginia, Republican Women’s Club, Patti Hidalgo Menders, explained: “They may not call it critical race theory, but they’re calling it equity, diversity, inclusion.” She continued, “It’s dividing our children into victims and oppressors and what’s a child supposed to do with that?”
The well-known right-wing think tank the Heritage Foundation hosted a January 2021 panel where the moderator, Angela Sailor, declared, “Critical race theory is the complete rejection of the best ideas of the American founding. This is some dangerous, dangerous philosophical poisoning in the blood stream.”
Promoting this backlash, Rufo wrote on Twitter in March 2021, “We have successfully frozen their brand— ‘critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category. [Emphasis added] … The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”
Rufo and those he speaks for fear the millions who acted against cop violence. They seek to alienate large sections of the population from those who know that opposition to racism is not “cultural insanity.”
Begin with facts and evidence
This “recodification” is the latest tactic in a long effort to obfuscate the actual history of the United States. The study of history, like any other social or natural science, must begin not with theories but with facts and evidence. Theories can be derived from evidence, then debated and discussed. But Rufo and others are not looking for a genuine debate about the strengths or weaknesses of critical race theory. Their false claims about what its originators intend are primarily aimed at blurring or distorting the facts of history. The goal is to prevent precisely the kind of discussion Malcolm suggested is necessary.
The New Hampshire state Commissioner of Education announced an effort recently to encourage individuals to “inform” on teachers who may discuss history in the classroom in a way some do not approve of. According to Carl Ladd, executive director of the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, “Commissioner [Frank] Edelblut has created a website to report complaints, anonymously if you wish, so that teachers and administrators can be easily reported for teaching history, economics or civics that doesn’t conform to the informant’s personal view of the world.”
This kind of witch-hunt can cost teachers their livelihood. A case in point is the firing of Matthew Hawn from his job in his hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee. “Hawn said he’d never heard of critical race theory until he was accused of teaching it,” said an article in the December 6, 2021, Washington Post. “But in May, the same month Hawn was fired, the Tennessee legislature passed a law banning it from its schools and forbidding educators from teaching that ‘an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive.’ ”
Hawn, who is white, was fired “after some parents and students complained when he assigned essays and videos that conveyed Black perspectives, and when he told students in his ‘Contemporary Issues’ class that, ‘White Privilege is a fact,’ ” reported The Root magazine.
In Colleyville, a suburb near Dallas, Texas, a Black principal resigned, accused of sanctioning the teaching of critical race theory, said an article in the December 10, 2021, New York Times. Elsewhere in the state, books have been pulled from library shelves and talks by award-winning writers canceled, as a result of the “Stop Critical Race Theory” campaign.
What are among the historical facts that should be explored and discussed?
Chattel slavery in North America—primarily of Africans brought here forcibly and under the most inhuman and grotesque conditions—began in 1619. That system of unspeakably brutal oppression lasted for 246 years, continuing to enslave generations of the descendants of the originally enslaved people. It was central to both the economic life and social relations, first of the 13 original colonies, and then of the nation that was founded. It established anti-Black racism as a defining feature of much of life in the U.S., rationalized by claims of white supremacy.
It took a second American Revolution—the Civil War—to end chattel slavery. After the abolition of slavery, new systems of racist discrimination replaced it.
The myth of race
Slavery has a history in human society that goes back thousands of years. But in the ancient societies of Greece or Rome, where slavery was the main mode of production, slaves came in many colors, from many cultures, backgrounds, and varying geographical areas. It was the introduction of chattel slavery of Africans at the end of the Middle Ages that led to a new and treacherous idea: the concept of “race.”
A very clear explanation of this false and dangerous notion was offered by a 1992 article in the International Socialist Review, authored by Doug Jenness, titled “Origins of the Myth of Race.” It deserves to be reprinted and circulated widely today. Fortunately, it can be found online here.
Referring to slavery in North America, Jenness explained that “a more insidious and long-lasting edifice was built: the concept of race. Blacks were identified as a biologically inferior race—one naturally suited to slave labor. A whole different set of behavioral patterns were assigned to Blacks, such as temperament or ability to withstand hard work and heat, that suited them to slave labor.”
This reactionary and utterly unscientific concept was not limited to North America. It accompanied the rise of colonialism all over the world.
Malcolm X spoke to this point in his January 1965 speech. “I’m not condemning all white people,” Malcolm said. “I’m just saying that in the past the white world was in power, and it was. That is history, that is fact. They called it European history or colonialism. They ruled all the dark world,” he continued. “Now when they were in power and had everything going their way, they didn’t call that racism, they called it colonialism.”
Malcolm then demolished the concept of “race.”
“Actually,” Malcolm said, “Caucasoid, Mongoloid and Negroid—there’s no such thing. These are so-called anthropological terms that were put together by anthropologists who were nothing but agents of the colonial powers.”
In the U.S., slavery and the myth of race went hand-in-hand with the development of capitalism. As Jenness wrote, “The emerging capitalist class needed a rationalization that made Blacks not only temporarily inferior but one with which they would remain inferior generation after generation. The concept of race supplied that. Skin color was the physical characteristic singled out to brand an entire part of the human race.”
Bourgeois democratic revolutions
This is essential to understanding how U.S. history was shaped to the present day and helps us grasp why it remains so difficult to eradicate racism. The American Revolution of 1776—like the French Revolution later in that century—took an important step towards establishing democracy in place of the tyrannical control of absolute monarchs such as King George III, who ruled over Britain’s North American colonies prior to that time. But like all revolutions of that era—bourgeois revolutions led by the rising capitalist class in Europe as well as North America—it fell well short of establishing genuine democracy for all.
The U.S. constitution, often hailed by liberals and conservatives alike, was so lacking in democratic guarantees for the popular masses that subsequent struggles quickly compelled Congress to adopt the first 10 amendments to the constitution, known as the Bill of Rights.
The U.S. war of independence from Britain did not change the oppressed condition of enslaved Black people. The constitution enshrined slavery in Article 1, Section 9: “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight,” it said. While this clause barred the importation of slaves after 1808, it accepted the system that consigned those already enslaved and their descendants to bondage beyond that date.
Article 4, Section 2 upheld the right of slave owners to claim their “property” in the event that enslaved people escaped their oppression. “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due,” it said.
The better-known Article 1, Section 2 established that those who were enslaved were less than human: “Representatives…shall be apportioned…by adding to the whole Number of free Persons…three fifths of all other Persons.”
None of these clauses used the word “slavery” but are without question a reference to the system of human bondage the constitution left firmly in place. This did not change until a long, bloody civil war crushed the slaveholders’ violent resistance. That led to the Constitution’s 13th Amendment, which finally outlawed slavery in 1865.
Slavery abolished but racism not uprooted
The abolition of slavery registered an enormous step forward but did not lead to the eradication of racism by any means. In fact, the myth of race has remained entrenched in U.S. politics and social relations as an ideological rationalization for the ongoing systematic oppression of African Americans and the brutal enforcement of their second-class status throughout society.
The civil rights struggle of the 1950s and ’60s registered further progress by putting an end to Jim Crow segregation in the South and challenging the myriad forms of de facto segregation in the North.
However, ideological rationalizations—the way people think—cannot be changed as easily as laws. False justifications for claims of racial inferiority have persisted for over 400 years. They continue to affect each new generation. It is also true that each new generation is shaped more by the successes registered as a result of the ongoing struggle for Black equality than the reactionary nostrums of the past. But overcoming the effect of these reactionary ideas requires an unvarnished study of the country’s true history, in order to face the present and “be prepared for the future,” as Malcolm explained.
The historic effects of chattel slavery and Jim Crow segregation are not the only sources of persistent racism in U.S. culture up to today. The full story of the genocide against the native peoples of North America carried out by European settlers to claim the land for their new nation remains largely untold—or glorified. Many Americans remain uneducated about it in any meaningful way.
Genocide against Native Americans
Pointing to this some 70 years ago Marxist historian George Novack wrote:
“However, the pages of the most learned historians contain little recognition and less understanding of this connection between the overthrow of Indian tribalism and the development of bourgeois society in America. As a rule, they regard the ousting and obliteration of the natives simply as an incident in the spread of the white man over the continent. They may condemn the treatment of the Indians as a lamentable blot on the historical record, but they do not see that it has any important bearing upon the formation of the United States.
“This conventional view of Indian-white relations is shared by conservative and liberal writers alike.”
This is just one more example of facts that cannot be ignored by any serious study of U.S. history. There are many others, including the exploitation and oppression of Mexican and Chinese immigrants as well as the imprisonment of Japanese immigrants and their descendants in concentration camps during WW II. Like anti-Black racism, this part of the past of this country continues to impact life across the United States today.
One is entitled to ask where the Heritage Foundation ranks all this history in “the best ideas of the American founding.”
Critical race theory is not a single worldview. Those who study and appreciate it may not agree on all the conclusions some may draw. However, there is widespread agreement on the basic idea noted by Leonard Pitts that race is “a social not scientific construct.” This is unquestionably true.
Fred Dube, a long-time leader of the African National Congress, explained this clearly in an article titled, “Racism in South Africa: Are there one or two categories of victims?” His essay first appeared in the Winter-Spring, 1986-87, issue of the Philosophical Forum, published by the City University of New York’s Baruch College.
“Racism does not arise out of a real thing called ‘race,’ ” wrote Dube, “but is a mental phenomenon. And by putting ‘race’ in quotation marks I intended to suggest that ‘race’ as a natural category is a myth, a myth which is nonetheless powerful enough to give rise to what we call racism, notwithstanding its mythical origins [Emphasis added].”
Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a law professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School who is widely credited with coining the term critical race theory, has elaborated further on this idea. It is, she says, “a way of seeing, attending to, accounting for, tracing and analyzing the ways that race is produced, the ways that racial inequality is facilitated, and the ways that our history has created these inequalities that now can be almost effortlessly reproduced unless we attend to the existence of these inequalities.”
Mari Matsuda, a law professor at the University of Hawaii whom the New York Times calls “an early developer of critical race theory,” adds: “The problem is not bad people. The problem is a system that reproduces bad outcomes.”
‘You can’t have capitalism without racism’
Years prior to this academic work, Malcolm X expressed this idea more clearly.
“The system in this country cannot produce freedom for an Afro-American. It is impossible for this system, this economic system, this political system, this social system, this system, period,” Malcolm said, speaking at the Militant Labor Forum in New York City on May 29, 1964. He added: “You can’t have capitalism without racism.”
It is also true that some views advanced allegedly in defense of critical race theory go well beyond the arguments cited above. Some lead in the wrong direction, both in understanding history and in finding the road forward to uproot racism once and for all. In so doing, they provide unnecessary cannon fodder to the right-wing campaign in the United States against teaching the facts of history.
Moreover, many proponents of critical race theory do not accept Malcolm’s understanding that it is the nature of the capitalist system in the U.S. itself that is the source of racism. Instead, many see the reactionary ideas still held by many people with white skin—and especially white working people—as the source of racism. On that point they are mistaken. These ideas persist because they are reinforced by institutionalized racism, but as Malcolm explained it is the system that is the source of the problem.
The next article in this series will take up those issues. Coming Soon...