Originally posted on RedsInEd.org
At the instigation of deep-pocketed conservatives, nine states have adopted bans on Critical Race Theory education, and similar bills are being considered in 26 others. While the language in these bills is often vague, the intent is clear: to silence a truthful presentation of the role of racism in U.S. history and institutions. But teachers are fighting back through their unions.
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical Race Theory is a practice of asking questions about racism in order to analyze and understand it. One of its main features is the concept that race is a social construct. Today the term “Critical Race Theory” is being used by the right wing as a catch-all for any anti-racist, anti-bigotry, culturally-responsive or ethinic studies-based curricula. In reality, CRT was developed decades ago by legal academics and later by academics in education and other fields to assess and understand structural racism in society and how it manifests in laws, policies and phenomena.
CRT is typically studied at the undergraduate and graduate levels — and is rarely part of K-12 curricula — although it can inform the teaching and practice of educators for whom CRT research was part of their training. Right-wing attempts to censor the study and use of CRT-informed teaching seek to maintain the status quo. These bans would inhibit an educator’s ability to identify, analyze, and implement solutions to deep inequities in education, and would prevent their students’ development of these same skills.
A right-wing movement
Language in anti-CRT legislation is borrowed from Trump’s 2020 executive order to ban anti-racism training for Federal employees. Through their funding and organizational support, the Republican Party hopes to manufacture a fake issue to appeal to conservative voters who flipped to the Democrats and carried Biden to victory in 2020.
Leaders of the campaign are zeroing in on school board elections as part of this electoral strategy and are funneling millions of dollars via front groups. One example is Free to Learn, which receives funding from right-wing conservative funding networks which have also been focused on implementing further voting restrictions. Free to Learn falsely claims they are a nonpartisan group that aims to stop “pressure or requirements to subscribe to a singular worldview and activist curriculum with a political agenda.”
Other groups such as No Left Turn and Parents Defending Education, which has a long history of harassing anti-racist educators on college campuses, have recently appeared at school board meetings to raise threats against educators. These groups are clearly part of an attempt to ignite a McCarthyite witch hunt against teachers who are presenting an accurate picture of the racist foundations of the U.S. political and economic system.
This propaganda campaign is backed by the corporate media and serves to embolden white supremacists. Fox News coverage has mentioned the phrase “Critical Race Theory” over 1,300 times in recent months, and other networks similarly propagate the myth that CRT is “left wing indoctrination.” They fail to mention that the same forces that attack teachers for presenting an accurate history of racism are the same who denounce the removal of Confederate statues as “erasing history.” This hypocrisy exposes the true nature of the campaign. Opponents of Critical Race Theory are not defending historical facts — they are defending the dominance of white supremacist ideology in education.
The resistance by unions
A key component in pushing back attempts to prevent anti-racist and anti-biogtry education will be educators, families and social justice movements taking action together. Many students, families and educators have already pledged that they refuse to be silenced by reactionary threats. The Howard Zinn Education Project has collected thousands of signatures on a Pledge to Teach the Truth: Despite New State Bills Against It, and teachers in more than 22 cities held protests against laws banning CRT. More demonstrations like these are on the horizon.
Teacher unions have been steadfast on the front lines against budget cuts and inequities in public schools and are frequently targeted by the same extreme right-wing organizations. In its July 2021 assembly, the National Education Association passed a measure to research the funders of groups pushing anti-CRT legislation and attacks on teachers doing anti-racist work, and NEA also encourages the expansion of anti-racist and culturally-responsive teaching.
American Federation of Teachers also recently pledged to defend teachers who come under attack for teaching the truth about racism. AFT specifically stated their organizational and legal defense of teachers will include educators who use the 1619 Project, which ”aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”
A socialist perspective
In any and all class societies, the most commonly held ideas are the ideas of the ruling class, and the United States is no exception. By and large, the education received by the U.S. working class is steeped in capitalist ideology. Conventional education tries to bury the bloody origins of our country, as well as the continuing efforts to use racism, sexism and bigotry to divide and subdue the entire working class.
Socialist activists and intellectuals have always fought to preserve the truth of U.S. history by demolishing the founding myths of empire that heroize war criminals like George Washington, a slave owner who was known by the Iroquois nations as the “Devourer of Villages.” Meanwhile, freedom fighters like Nat Turner are demonized as “terrorists.” Uncovering, analyzing and understanding the reality of U.S. history is an essential component of the ongoing development of a revolutionary U.S. working class.
2018 brought an upsurge in teacher activism across the country, with tens of thousands taking part in strikes and activism against right-wing assaults. These attacks have included attacks on teachers’ unions, budget cuts, and the siphoning off of public funds to charter schools and school vouchers. In addition to adverse impacts on public schools, these attacks made it harder for teachers and districts to address the numerous challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, COVID-19 demonstrated the key role teachers play — without teachers, society cannot run effectively. This means that the upswing in teacher activism and organization will continue to be one of the major levers of social mobilization in the current period. The revolt against racism which swept the country in the aftermath of the police lynching of George Floyd has profoundly impacted the education justice movement. Teachers across the country are linking up the struggle for economic justice with the struggle for social justice. In doing so, they are rejecting racist, pro-war, and anti-communist curricula.
The struggle ahead
The ability of teachers to organize within their unions to fight back against the recent tide of racist anti-union reaction will be key towards continued strides towards justice this school year.
- Review any articles in your union contract that address academic freedom and be prepared to raise them when needed. Contact your union site leader or union leadership for advice and support. If you do not have a union, reach out to one in your state to seek advice.
- If there are teachers facing discipline or dismissal for teaching lessons on “Critical Race Theory,” against sexism or anti-LGBTQ bigory, organize solidarity campaigns to support their immediate reinstatement.
- Mobilize teachers to defend anti-racist and anti-biogtry educators and curricula through sign-on letters defending those under attack. Organize street protests to pressure reactionary school boards to rescind any imposed restrictions on teaching culturally-responsive and anti-racist lessons.
- In your union, support and participate in social justice caucuses and committees.
- Participate with your union to elect anti-racist, progressive, and socialist school board members.