Over the past few months, conservatives have manufactured a new bogeyman that looms over public education: Critical Race Theory (CRT). According to their narrative, CRT rewrites the history of the United States and ingrains the idea into our children’s minds that white people are inherently racist, and therefore, white children should be ashamed of who they are.

As a result, Republican state governments have moved to ban any teaching or discussions that use CRT. Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, Tennessee, and Texas have all passed laws banning CRT from being taught in schools. Other state school boards in Florida, Georgia, and Utah have introduced new guidelines barring CRT from curricula. Presently, a total of 22 states, including Maine, have seen legislation brought forth to discourage or ban CRT-related education in schools.

CRT attack map

Anti-Critical Race Theory legislation map. Colors show varying degree of legislative bans. Image credit Education Week.

As the Maine Beacon reported, “In Maine, a bill was introduced that would prohibit public school teachers from ‘engaging in political, ideological or religious advocacy in the classroom,’ including ‘segregating students according to race or singling out one racial group of students as responsible for the suffering or inequities experienced by another racial group of students.’ That legislation, put forward by state Rep. Micky Carmichael (R-Greenbush), drew strong opposition during a May 5 public hearing and was issued a divided report out of the Education Committee.”

This is a conscious smear campaign. CRT is nothing like the picture painted by Republicans. 

So what is Critical Race Theory? CRT is a legal-academic movement, grounded in Critical Theory, that emerged in the mid-1970s. CRT scholars argue that racial-social problems are primarily influenced by complex social and institutional forces. While theorists don’t necessarily share the same beliefs, the basic tenants of CRT tend to focus on institutions rather than individuals, subtle and complex examples of racism instead of explicit ones, and the concept of intersectionality: a framework used to understand how different political and social identities contribute to expressions and manners of discrimination and privilege. In short, it examines how institutions and complex social ideas contribute to discrimination against non-white people. It does not focus on individual white people. 

None of this matters to the conservatives seeking power. Their plan is to manipulate cultural sentiments in order to rile up a base of supporters and make moderates second guess their allegiances so they can seize political power in 2022 and 2024. They wish to undermine and suppress America’s cultural history. This recent attempt to suppress history can be observed through the lens of cultural populism and the discourse surrounding it. Cultural populists believe that our cultural histories are created, maintained, and spread by common people from the bottom. However, critics of this ideology argue that the masses of people within a society have far less input in how culture is created and accepted. Furthermore, they argue that the power over our cultural narratives lies primarily in dominant institutions and classes. These institutions use mass communication like the media or the pulpit to shape our accepted cultural histories. In short, Cultural Populists believe in the bottom-up creation of culture, while critics of cultural populism believe in the top-down control of cultural narratives. 

This recent attempt to seize control over how history is taught to American children begs the question: Whose experiences and stories shape our history? CRT scholars argue that the experiences of those historically oppressed must be closely examined and integrated into our history education. Conservatives are pushing policy to suppress those lived-to-tell experiences. Teaching history has always had a political purpose and there are countless examples of the power struggle over historical narratives. For example, Emile Durheim, a French sociologist who is commonly cited as the principal founder of modern social sciences, showed that historical education in France served to promote the Catholic Church as early as the 1700s. 

Decades later, in a 1979 article for the Harvard Educational Review, Jean Anyon investigated seventeen history textbooks’ portrayal of American history from 1865 to 1917. She found that almost all the textbooks referred to the first years of the 20th Century as “progressive,” and portrayed the trust-busting of Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson as radical reformers of big business. Therefore, the narrative taught to students outlined a historical period of responsible governments regulating big businesses. These textbooks did not include or acknowledge the argument made by many historians, well before 1979, that the period’s antitrust laws merely served to maintain the power of big business.

Alan Brinkley American History

Alan Brinkley’s high school U.S. history textbook.

And there is a long record of how race and racism have been taught in U.S. schools. In 1983, Michael Lybarger investigated the creation of modern Social Studies and published an article in the History of Education Quarterly entitled “Origins of the Modern Social Studies: 1900-1916.” Lybarger, as did the originators of social studies, defined the subject as an amalgamation of history, economics, political science and civics. He traced the goals of modern Social Studies curriculum to the 1916 publication of The Social Studies in Secondary Education, a report prepared by the Committee on Social Studies. This committee was headed by Thomas Jesse Jones who had guided the creation of Social Studies at the Hampton Institute, a school for Black students. 

The 1916 report borrowed many of its ideas from those used at Hampton Institute, which encouraged students to be obedient, “more patient under pressure, and more hopeful as to the future.” Jones, a supporter of Booker T. Washington and his views, also hoped that new students of social studies would also imbibe a “belief in the inevitability of progress.” These convictions would develop an individual better suited for industrial and agricultural work. 

Lybarger contended that these three ideological assumptions, that is, tolerance of oppression, hope in the future, and inevitability of progress, were pillars in the foundation of modern Social Studies taught in schools. If this is the case, not only is ideology present in the textbooks America’s students have read, both in their underlying assumptions and consciously promoted agendas, but a twentieth century ideology conducive to the business class and liberal notions of social change fertilizes the very ground from which modern Social Studies springs. 

So what does this mean? It means our History curriculum is a battleground for ideology, and recent Republican efforts to affect that curriculum reveal that they understand it as such. As early as February, the Maine GOP introduced a bill that sounded innocent enough, but was aimed at combating any critical race discussion in classrooms.

History must be seen through a lens. However, it should not be a frontline tool for strengthening oppressive politics, and that is exactly what Republicans want. This is, unfortunately, not a new strategy of the GOP. 

In 1994-1995, during a heated race for Congressional seats and with National History Standards being proposed, Lynne Cheney worked with conservative think tanks like the AEI and Heritage Foundation to successfully defeat an attempt by history teachers and professors to establish basic standards. Why? They argued that “liberal multiculturalism” would be a component of any such standards. Conservative institutions saw that the time was ripe to take political power, and they manipulated new theories in history in order to press their case. They won. In January, 1995, despite the various debates and edits that were made to the standards in order to establish non-partisan standards, the Senate voted 99-1 in favor of repudiating them.

This was after a campaign of op-eds and TV show appearances by conservatives who acted as though they were just bringing up personal concerns. But it is clear by the timeline that their efforts were, at least, semi-orchestrated. This time is no different. Conservatives today are orchestrating an offensive against our histories under the guise of banning Critical Race Theory. We shouldn’t let them do it without a fight.