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Textbook Politics
How are laws targeting “critical race theory” in schools affecting U.S. education? Jeffrey Sachs on the emerging culture of censorship and self-censorship in the American classroom.
Across the United States, Republican legislators are trying to control how schools teach about race, sex, gender, and American history. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a rising star on the American right who may run for president in 2024, recently introduced the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act,” legislation that would allow parents to sue school districts teaching “critical race theory.” At his urging, the Florida State Board of Education banned its teaching last summer—that is, as the rules framed it, teaching “that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons”—and prohibited the educational use of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, according to which the United States’ “true founding” was the arrival of enslaved people from Africa in the early 17th century. PEN America, a U.S.-based nonprofit promoting free expression, published a November report highlighting “educational gag order” bills introduced or pre-filed in more than two dozen states last year, a dozen of which passed into law. PEN called these measures “illiberal in their attempt to legislate that certain ideas and concepts be out of bounds, even, in many cases, in college classrooms among adults.” What effect are these laws having on education in America?
Jeffrey Sachs is a political scientist at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, who’s writing about these bills and laws for PEN. According to Sachs, the new laws are stifling free speech and honest teaching in the classroom, creating an atmosphere of confusion and fear among educators—and likely to be adopted by more states this year, further burdening schools still struggling with the disruptions of the pandemic. He says the laws are a response to collapsed trust in educational institutions among Republicans, many of whom sincerely believe schools are indoctrinating students with left-wing ideology and teaching them to hate America—though Sachs also sees this as similar to the kind of paranoia that consumed the American right when it legislated against Communism and Marxism in the 1950s. Sachs sees the new legislation as appealing mostly to Republicans, but he says Democrats have yet to figure out how effectively to oppose the laws—even as Republicans are planning to use attacks on “critical race theory” in their campaigns for this year’s midterm elections.
Graham Vyse: What exactly do these laws do?
Jeffrey Sachs: These bills and laws are all designed to regulate how educators—and people who run educational institutions—talk and teach about race, sex, and American history. They all follow a somewhat similar design, based off a Trump administration executive order, which included a list of “divisive concepts” such as the idea that an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive. Another “divisive concept” is the idea that an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish on account of his or her race or sex.
Vyse: How unusual are these bills and laws? Can you think of historical analogies in the United States or around the world?
Sachs: The closest legislative precedent these bills have is the Red Scare wave of anti-Communist and anti-Marxist bills introduced during the 1950s. They required employees of public institutions—and in particular schools and universities—to swear loyalty to the United States and disavow certain concepts associated with Communism. Those bills, like today’s bills, reflected an incredible political backlash and paranoia taking over the American right.
Vyse: What’s driving today’s bills?
Sachs: It’s a uniformly Republican effort. I have a list of 80 different bills proposed since last January, and every single one is sponsored exclusively by Republicans.
What’s motivating this? First of all, these bills are politically popular. They win votes. They get good headlines. They’re speaking to a real demand. There’s debate about the validity of fears people have, but there’s definitely fear out there—sincerely felt by many people—that schools are indoctrinating students into “critical race theory” or Marxism or somehow brainwashing them into being unpatriotic. This is proving to be a winning issue with conservatives and many parents generally.
More from Jeffrey Sachs at The Signal:
What teachers often respond to isn’t the letter of the law but a chilling effect created by the law. For instance, in Oklahoma, the American Civil Liberties Union recently filed a lawsuit against the state on behalf of students, on the grounds that the law’s unconstitutional vagueness has led to teachers pulling books like The Autobiography of Malcolm X or To Kill a Mockingbird off the shelves because of how those books might make students feel. Teachers are avoiding discussions on topics of race and racism in the classroom because they’re so terrified of falling afoul of this law. We’ve yet to see the case of a teacher being fired or disciplined as the result of a law like this, as far as I know, but there’s been this broad, chilling effect.”
Kentucky has a bill that will be taken up this coming legislative session, which would forbid public colleges and universities from “subjecting students to racist or sexist content.” If they’re found to have violated this, they can be sued by the student—or the student’s parents—for up to $100,000. Missouri is considering a bill requiring K-12 schools to offer courses that promote “an overall positive history and understanding of the United States.” If they don’t, they can be sued and obliged to pay up to $1,000 in civil penalties. How is a K-12 teacher supposed to know what it means to promote “an overall positive history and understanding of the United States”? What does it mean to violate that provision? Iowa passed a law last year prohibiting any mandatory student training or orientation that includes any among a list of divisive concepts. Iowa State University has interpreted this law also to include any mandatory course required as part of a student’s major.”
I don’t think Democrats and other opponents of these bills really have any good strategy in mind for how to respond to them. In the Virginia governor’s race, the Democratic nominee, Terry McAuliffe, just insisted again and again that “critical race theory” isn’t being taught in schools in his state. Now, that may or may not be true, depending on how you define “critical race theory,” but it certainly wasn’t an effective political response. A better response is to emphasize how these bills can be and are being abused in ways that would terrify many people—bills used to yank books from library shelves, including books by Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, or to silence professors, or to change their syllabi, or to cancel courses.”
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