Whitewashing US History

The right-wing assault on Critical Race Theory

A stack of books on a school desk. Titles include The Souls of Black Folk; How to Be an Antiracist; Racism without Racists; The New Jim Crow; and Caste Class & Race.
Books by and about Black people, along with other people of color, have long been targeted by the right wing. PHOTO: FS (books); Shutterstock (desk)
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The ultraright has a go-to trick for mobilizing their base. Take a hot-button social issue, wrap it in misinformation and outright lies, and run it through the massive right-wing outrage amplification machine. Use that panic and fury to build a righteous, patriotic crusade. Aim this reactionary force at people of color, queer people, the Left and the working class. This year, they’re in full force against masks, vaccines, and a manufactured existential threat to children’s minds.

Using the backlash against last year’s Black Lives Matter upsurge, the far right has painted a target on Critical Race Theory (CRT). Suddenly this decades-old academic theory became the shorthand for racial justice demands they opposed, particularly in education. By late August, 27 states had introduced legislation barring CRT, or even the discussion of the role racism plays in building and shaping the United States, from classrooms. Eight have already passed legislation controlling what teachers can or cannot say about race, gender and diversity issues.

But what is CRT really, how was this supposedly grassroots movement against it created, and what’s the real purpose of the attack?

Fomenting fear. Critical Race Theory originated in the mid-1970s, as civil rights and legal scholars like Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw pushed beyond the liberal goal of a “color-blind” society. A core concept is that racism and white supremacy are social constructs. CRT is used to examine how laws and institutions maintain racism.

CRT was deliberately morphed into a threat that is “teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other.” Conservative journalist Christopher Rufo mounted the attack, combing through the foundational CRT texts, searching for incendiary nuggets to spark outrage. He fed cherry-picked quotes to right-wing personalities, who pushed their narratives on their interview shows, podcasts and news channels. Donald Trump got the message, and in September 2020, demanded “no funding” for CRT and drafted an executive order limiting how federal contractors running diversity seminars could discuss race. Organizations like the Heritage Foundation and opportunist politicians hopped on board.

By mid-2021, turning the attack into a right populist cause was in full swing. Fox News broadcasters mentioned “Critical Race Theory” 1,300 times in a four-month span. The internet became filled with videos of parents shouting at school board meetings, accusing schools of teaching white children that they are personally responsible for racism and that kids were being trained to go out and kill cops.

Assault on truth. The right-wing anti-CRT toolkit includes getting teachers fired and intimidating local politicians. The outrage is also channeled into cutting funding to public schools and channeling money to privatized education.

The drive to “ban CRT” is framed as a battle for parental rights and freedom of thought against supposed communist indoctrination. But what it truly represents is a campaign to apply fresh coats of white-out to U.S. history. Disguise massacres, the most massive land-grab in history, and brutal destruction of indigenous peoples as “progress of civilization.” Erase the fact that the power and wealth of the country would never have existed without the enslaved labor of Black people. Hide the leadership and achievements of immigrants, organized workers, and rebels of all races and genders. Deny that structural racism exists, embedded in the very bones of U.S. legal, political and economic structures.

Above all, discredit CRT or any other method for critically appraising this country’s history on race and block those who might actually use it to dismantle racism.

Fighting for our histories. While getting much less media coverage, there are forces mobilizing to counter the attack on CRT. Democratic Party liberals are focused on winning local elections. Groups like the ACLU and NAACP are challenging legislation and executive orders in court on grounds of free speech or anti-discrimination.

The two largest teacher’s unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, have both vowed to defend members under attack. They have also set up funds to advocate for “culturally responsive education, Critical Race Theory, and ethnic studies.”

All are important tasks, but more is needed.

The defense of CRT encompasses the struggle to ensure that the truthful history of the United States is taught. Young people must understand the world they live in didn’t come into being by chance or divine decree. It is the product of material realities underlying how the wealth of the nation was created, and centuries of contending interests, forces and ideologies. Teaching youth that the country they live in today was not only built on stolen land with stolen labor, but also with the daring and solidarity of generations before them, can inspire them to continue the fight for a just world.

The right wing’s attempt to whitewash U.S. history, to blank out how the capitalist system is utterly dependent on systemic oppression, exploitation and state violence, is a fundamental step toward the possibility of fascism. History shows us that when the elite are desperate enough, when their outsized share of society’s wealth is threatened, when the insurgency of the oppressed rises to the danger zone, they will resort to the totalitarian, repressive force of fascism.

The battle for true narratives and analysis in schools has a natural and necessary link to many other struggles today: to defend women’s right to control their own bodies; to challenge police violence; to stand up for workers’ right to organize on the job; to protect the planet from rapacious destruction. Teaching students about these connections helps them understand that these struggles are still linked, and are ongoing.

Victory against the common source of these attacks needs a disciplined and militant approach. Joining the fightbacks in a multi-racial, workingclass, feminist united front is critical to ensure that our upcoming generations have the education they need to eradicate injustice and build a better world!

The author is a Black and Chinese socialist feminist activist and member of SEIU 1021. She has organized community trainings on sexual assault that incorporate analysis on race. Send questions and comments to: kristinaelee@gmail.com.

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