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What Do Conservatives Fear About Critical Race Theory?

One of the first forays in a mounting conservative campaign to control the teaching of race was HB 3979, which was introduced in the Texas legislature this spring. The bill, which has become a model for state legislation across the country, proposed to elevate the teaching of “founding documents” in Texas schools, prevent teachers from supplementing approved books with other texts, and ban the teaching of the 1619 Project, which emphasizes the role of structural racism in American history. Its original sponsor was a staunch conservative named Brandon Creighton, who had previously introduced legislation that would have made it more difficult for local governments to remove Confederate monuments. But Creighton collapsed on the floor of the Texas Senate in early May, during a debate over a bill he supported to let Texans carry concealed weapons without a permit, and did not return to work when HB 3979 came to the Senate floor, on May 21st, so the task of presenting the bill fell to a bearded Republican named Bryan Hughes, whose genial manner lent a John Grisham-like courtliness to a tense debate. “You’re a very respectful individual,” the Democratic state senator José Menéndez said, eyeing Hughes. Hughes quickly replied, “You certainly are, too. Thank you.”

Since the January 6th insurrection, Republicans on the national level have been a little low on talking points and shock material. That is not the case in state legislatures and on cable television, where conservatives have been vigorously denouncing the influence of critical race theory, a scholarly movement ascendent during the nineties, the adherents of which argue that white supremacy is encoded in law and in the structure of American institutions. These conservatives have noticed that concepts used in critical race theory—“structural racism,” “internalized white supremacy”—have entered the mainstream, and in some cases have become part of corporate training or public-school education. A center-right policy journal has reported that third-grade students in Cupertino, California, are being asked to rank themselves according to their power and privilege, and that white male executives at Lockheed Martin, of all places, were asked to examine their racial and gender privileges. Like in Texas, conservatives in nearly a dozen other state legislatures have introduced bills with very similar language, with the apparent goal of keeping the idea of enduring structural racism as far from schools as possible.

In the Texas legislature on May 21st, Hughes presented as a case study a picture book called “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness,” in which a white child, prompted by TV-news coverage of a police shooting, goes to the library stacks to find out about racial history. “Whiteness is a bad deal. It always was,” the child eventually concludes. The book, which was said to have been recommended by teachers in the Highland Park Independent School District, in Dallas, was held up by the bill’s supporters as proof that the legislation was necessary. “It’s horrible, horrible,” Hughes said. But, beneath the bluster, he seemed to be conceding quite a lot. Hughes opened his presentation by saying that he wanted to be direct about the American experience, and that, as glistening as the ideals in the founding documents had been, they had applied at first only to “white property-owning males.” However much those rights had since expanded, some Texans continued to experience unfairness that was “much worse and more invidious” than for others, he said, “and there’s no getting around that.”

Republicans hold a small advantage in the Texas Senate, so the bill’s passage was always likely, but for more than four hours Hughes moved patiently around the Senate floor, taking questions. The Democratic state senators, a majority of whom are Hispanic or Black, asked pointed questions about whether there was really any public demand for this legislation, and also more searching ones, about what would be accomplished by deëmphasizing the cruel and unjust elements of the American experience. The bill, Hughes kept insisting, would not ask teachers to change how they taught the past—it wouldn’t affect lessons on slavery. It was only seeking teacher neutrality when it came to current events. The Democrats seemed basically to distrust this distinction. Royce West, one of the most prominent Black politicians in the state, rose to point out that Hughes’s beloved founding documents had been chosen entirely by white legislators—“no input from us.” West asked Hughes if he believed that the ideals of the founding documents were often betrayed. “Lincoln said that,” Hughes jumped in. “He said we’re hypocrites.” West asked Hughes to define white supremacy. Hughes answered that it was the belief that one race is superior to others. “Many people believe that,” Hughes said. “Of course, they’re wrong. But, many people believe that.” West asked whether acts of racism still occurred. “Of course, it happens,” Hughes said. “Of course, it does.”

The bill passed the Texas Senate 18–13, over the objections of the Texas A.F.T. And, although the Senate debate had for many liberals emphasized the conservative challenge to free speech, it wasn’t immediately obvious how the new law would affect the work of Texas teachers. August Plock, who teaches eleventh-grade U.S. history in the public schools in Pflugerville, outside of Austin, told me that, in the existing Texas curriculum, “we do a poor job of including minorities in teaching history,” Latinos especially. “We cover Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and that’s about it.” There is nothing on the Zoot Suit Riots, he said, and little on the enduring struggles over immigration. But the bill, which requires teachers not to give special “deference” to any one side, seemed to Plock to be relatively easy to manage. In each of his classes, he said, a handful of students are deeply engaged in the material, and it doesn’t take much to draw out more critical perspectives. Plock said, of the conservative legislators, “They want to get out there thinking that these damn liberal schoolteachers are teaching stuff they disagree with. I’m sitting here looking at it and thinking, It really doesn’t impact me as a teacher, per se, because I teach [the Texas state curriculum].”

One reason might be that the emphasis in the text of the bills, in Texas and in other states, is often on insuring that white students not be made to feel racist, and that conservative ones not be made to feel isolated by their views. In Texas’s bill, after three short sections establishing that students can’t be required to receive academic credit by working for organizations also involved in lobbying, and that teachers can’t be required to attend training sessions that attribute “blame on the basis of race or sex,” there is a very long and telling section, which is present also in bills in other states. It prohibits teachers and administrators from suggesting that “an individual’s moral character, standing, or worth is necessarily determined by the individual’s race or sex.” It insists that no individual student should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual’s race or sex.” It bans any teaching that “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist.”

In Texas, the news coverage of the bill—which the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, is expected to sign—has focussed on the idea that it will “ban critical race theory,” as one local news station put it. But the term “critical race theory” does not appear in the text. What it seeks to do, on closer reading, is establish a protective halo around white students, so that they do not hear that their success might have something to do with their race, or that the structures of racial power and privilege in the past also apply to the present. The bill doesn’t rewrite history in the way that the campaigns to protect Confederate memorialization have sometimes sought to. Instead, it tries to cleave off students from any feeling of historical responsibility—as if, with each generation, America were re-created, blameless and anew.

This notion—that a generation can arise purely in the context of its own experience rather than that of its parents or generations before them—recurs often in American politics, and especially right now. Increasingly, conservatism after Donald Trump has been defined by a fear that American society is on the verge of being displaced by a progressive reimagining, with woke politics and aggressive redistribution. Progressivism is defined by an equally urgent hope that it can, in fact, displace old patterns of ecological destruction and discrimination. It is interesting—and slightly ironic—that critical race theory, with its invocations of structural racism, should be so central to the policy debate right now: part of its teaching is that the patterns of American society can’t be easily dislodged by a change in manners, and that if you are snapping your fingers to make the past disappear you are only doing so in tandem with the rhythms of the past.

That is reason to think that the conflict over critical race theory might endure, even when the attention of Fox News inevitably drifts. The question of what children are held responsible for cuts deep, and the answer isn’t always determined by a person’s ideology or partisan identity. When I spoke with Terry Stoops, a conservative education-policy expert at the John Locke Foundation who had been appointed to a task force on “indoctrination” in public schools by the conservative lieutenant governor of North Carolina, he told me that he wasn’t sure how long the outrage of some grassroots conservatives would ultimately last. But he did think their anger had been misunderstood. “I’ve seen so much discussion about the fact that conservatives are advancing these critical-race-theory bills because they don’t want the truth of slavery or racism to be taught, and I haven’t seen that at all. I think parents want their children to learn about the mistakes of the past in order to create a better future,” Stoops said. “They don’t want their children to be told that they are responsible for the mistakes of their ancestors, and that unless they repent for those mistakes then they will remain complicit.” The debate isn’t about history, exactly. It is about the possibility of blamelessness.


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