History Under Siege: The GOP, Critical Race Theory, and the Struggle against White Supremacy
by Eric J. Weiner - July 15, 2021
As states move to criminalize and/or censor educators who frame American history from the perspective of Critical Race Theory, it's important to remember what initially fueled these efforts. Over the course of two days in September 2019, the Trump administration quietly formalized its commitment to the ideology of White supremacy within the context of schooling and public education. Now weaponized at the state level, the radical conservative challenge to CRT must be read as a White Nationalist Strategy replacing the GOP's more traditional and limited Southern Strategy to codify the struggle against systems, formations, and structures of White supremacy as anti-American. The GOP's White Nationalist Strategy at the educational level is, at its core, an attack on historical memory. It supports the schooling of White supremacist ideologies within our public schools by policing curriculum and pedagogies that challenge the culture and ideology of White supremacy, the discourse of White privilege, and, more generally, teach against the grain of the official historical record.
As states move to criminalize and/or censor educators who frame American history from the perspective of critical race theory (Florido, 2021; Lati, 2021), its important to remember what initially fueled these efforts. Over the course of two days in September 2019, the Trump administration quietly formalized its commitment to the ideology of White supremacy within the context of schooling and public education (Liptak, 2020). In two separate but parallel moves, Trump announced that the Department of Education (DOE) would investigate public schools to determine if they were using the Pulitzer-Prize-winning curriculum, The New York Times 1619 Project, while also decreeing that federal employees would no longer receive professional development education about White privilege from the perspective of critical race theory (CRT). The 1619 Projects main educational objective is
to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nations birth year [thereby placing] the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country. (Pulitzer Center, n.d.)
Trump promised to defund schools if the DOE discovered they were using the 1619 Project. Although he never had the authority to back up his promise, the significance of his threat lay in the groundwork for what we see happening now at the state level. Laying the groundwork for states to demonize and criminalize CRT, Trump declared CRT and the 1619 Projects curriculum un-American and a form of anti-American propaganda (Liptak, 2020).
Adding bricks and mortar to this foundation, John Voight (2020), the director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Trump administration during this period, released a memo from the Executive Office of the President. The memo decreed that All [federal] agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on critical race theory [and] White privilege, two foci of federal workforce professional development that the administration deemed to be divisive, anti-American propaganda. These types of trainings, Voight wrote, not only run counter to the fundamental beliefs for which our Nation has stood since its inception, but they also engender division and resentment within the Federal workforce.
In his memo, he failed to mention that the nation has also stood on the backs and necks of people of color from its inceptiona contradiction, ironically, that he might have known had he been educated about American history from the perspective of CRT. Within the broader context of traditional GOP ideology (i.e., the GOP before Trump), its important to remember that public education was never supposed to become a federal issue, nor did the GOP want it to become one. Consistent with its efforts in the past to fortify states rights against federal incursion and overreach, yet resting on the foundation that the Trump administration helped to build while in power, the GOP has seized on CRT and the 1619 Project as a way to leverage, rationalize, and sell their radical conservative politicization of public education.
CRT, unknown to many outside academia, advances a complex accounting of how power, race, and ideology converge to create inequities of opportunity and outcome between White people and people of color. Drawing from the fields of law, sociology, history, cultural studies, political science, sociolinguistics, social/psychology, philosophy, and education, CRT provides us with important insights into the hegemony of White supremacy in America. The term White supremacy is being used instead of racism; Frances Lee Ansley explained why:
By White supremacy I do not mean to allude only to the self-conscious racism of White supremacist hate groups. I refer instead to a political, economic and cultural system in which Whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of White superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of White dominance and non- White subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings. (Newkirk, 2017, para. 7)
Notions of inherent evil never appear in the serious scholarship that has come out of the CRT tradition. At its heart, it is a constructivist theory; that is, it locates meanings within historical contexts and as articulations of power. From slavery and education to health care, housing, and finance, CRT analyses the nations racist structures and formations. CRT does not argue that anyone or any nation is inherently racist. The very nature of CRTs project remains committed to and grounded in the goal of racial justice through antiracist curriculum and pedagogies. Its project would be incoherent if it regarded people or nations permanently and essentially racist. Why teach or design antiracist curriculum or antiracist pedagogies if there is no chance of transforming these structures and formations, that is, if they are essential and permanent? From a constructivist perspective, formations and structures are understood as constructed and therefore, it follows, can be destroyed, reformed, or reconstructed. This is the promise of CRT, as well as all forms and practices of critical pedagogy more generally.
Now weaponized at the state level, the radical conservative challenge to CRT must be read as a White Nationalist Strategyreplacing the GOPs more traditional and limited Southern Strategyto codify the struggle against systems, formations, and structures of White supremacy as anti-American. This means pitting working-class Whites against working-class Blacks and frightening the White suburban and exurban middle classes with representations of blackness that could have been pulled right out of D. W. Griffiths White supremacist fantasy, Birth of a Nation.
The GOPs White Nationalist Strategy at the educational level is, at its core, an attack on historical memory. It supports the schooling of White supremacist ideologies within our public schools by policing curriculum and pedagogies that challenge the culture and ideology of White supremacy, the discourse of White privilege, and, more generally, that teach against the grain of the official historical record. As Stanley Aronowitz (2001) said in a different context, The hidden curriculum isnt so hidden anymore. Through these educative actions, the GOP has moved from accepting the more passive miseducation of our young people through various liberal curricular initiatives about slavery and racism to a full-throated attack on history itself (Weiner, 2021).
Distinguishing itself from the neoliberal agenda for education, which remains committed to reproducing the myth of pedagogical and curricular neutrality, the GOP understands that schooling is a cultural practice; it functions as a force of socialization, meaning-making, memory construction, and ideological reproduction. Unlike liberals who call for neutrality in education, bending over backward to find equivalences so as not to be accused of liberal bias, the GOP, like progressive and critical educators before them, recognizes the power of schooling to shape memory, (de)legitimate historical narratives, habituate thoughts, and condition behavior.
Through a combination of pedagogical practices, curricular designs, and assessment protocols, schools themselves have an enormous impact on the culture of which they are a part. They are not simply mirrors that reflect and reproduce some imagined neutral representation of reality that is disconnected from state and corporate power. They have always been what Louis Althusser (1970) called ideological state apparatuses. The call for neutrality in education is simply a way to hide ideological bias. As the historian Howard Zinn (2001/2018) famously said, You cant be neutral on a moving train. Right now, the train, argues Henry Giroux (Franca, 2019), is traveling toward a kind of 21st-century neoliberal fascism at Mach speed, and appeals to neutrality will only speed things up:
This defense of neutrality has always seemed to me to be the basis for a kind of fascist politics because it hides its code for not allowing people to understand the role that education plays ideologically, in producing particular forms of knowledge, of power, of social values, of agency, of narratives about the world. . . . It is impossible for education to be neutral so those who argue that education should be neutral are really arguing for a version of education in which nobody is accountable. The people who produce that form of education become invisible because they are saying its neutral. So, you cant identify the . . . modes of power at work. That is precisely what they want, because power at its worst makes itself invisible, and the notion that education is neutral is one way for people who have dominant power of making it invisible and making propaganda itself incapable of being seen.
In our brave new world, educators who reject facile appeals to neutrality must be aware of some of the consequences of taking a position against the culture and ideology of white supremacy and other interlocking systems of oppression (Collins, 1990) in their classrooms. Teachers must be prepared for pushback from students, parents, and administrators who are allied, explicitly or passively, with the culture and ideology of white supremacy. Pushback comes in many disciplinary forms, some more harmful and devastating than others. These include disciplinary write-ups that can threaten future promotions; unofficial conversations in which teachers are warned by administrators that parents and students dont like how they teach or what they are teaching; dismissal from the job; angry and hostile letters to administration; and poor course evaluations by disgruntled students who are explicitly aligned with the culture and ideology of White supremacy or have been taught to believe that when a teacher does not take a position against White supremacy and other interlocking systems of oppression, then the education they are receiving is neutral.
Because critical educators cannot become activists in the classroom without slipping into a role that is potentially inconsistent with compassionate teaching, I believe that we have a responsibility to help people aligned with the culture and ideology of White supremacy reframe the racial equation. We wont always be successful, but success cant be a precondition for critical engagement. At the pedagogical level, this means recognizing how and why the culture and ideology of White supremacy provides comfort and security to a large swath of White America. This is something the GOP understands all too well. Beyond the members of hate groups, who I dont believe, generally speaking, can be taught to unlearn their ideology and violence, White America is afraid, as White America has always been afraid. Whether its because they understand that there will be some kind of payback for centuries of pain, or they know deep down that they really dont deserve the privileges their skin provides, or they have been indoctrinated to believe that people of color are fundamentally different from themselves, or they dont believe people of color are really experiencing as much violence and pain as they say they are living in America, White America needs to be given the tools to reframe their relationship to Black and brown America. I dont believe they will come to it on their own.
Myles Horton, cofounder of the Highlander Folk School, has an important insight drawn from his experience working within a racially integrated school at the height of Jim Crow in the South. He recalls an incident in which White and Black farmers were at the school to problematize and strategize about corporate farming and its harmful effects on local farmers and their ability to remain solvent. When they saw a group of Black men at the school, two White farmers said to Horton, What are they doing here?! Even though Horton knew what these White farmers meant by their question, he responded by asking the White men if the men they were referring to were not farmers. Horton said that if they were not farmers, he would make sure they were asked to leave because the school was open only to farmers that day. The White men re-looked upon the Black men as Horton sauntered off. Yes, it appeared they were farmers. They spent the rest of the day working together to try to resolve their common problems. In the simplest terms, Horton helped the White farmers reframe their relationship to the Black farmers by getting them to see beyond race and into a world in which their shared class interests mattered more than their racial differences (pbriggsiam, 2013; 1981 interview with Bill Moyers).
Although never easy and on occasion life-threatening, Hortons work at Highlander during the labor struggles of the 1930s and 1940s and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s shows the possibilities for CRT and critical pedagogy more generally in helping White people reframe their perceptions not just of Black people, but of themselves as well. Currently, and as part of the White Nationalist Strategy, the GOP is defining what it means to be White in America. It means to be afraid, angry, suspicious, insecure, and ill-equipped, in theory and practice, to find common concerns across racial, religious, sexual, and gendered lines. Hortons work at Highlander provides a model of CRT and critical pedagogy that can confront the culture and ideology of White supremacy that is officially working its way into our state systems of education and schooling with a force not seen in decades.
Aronowitz, S. (2001). The knowledge factory. Beacon Press.
Collins, P. H. (1990). Black feminist thought in the matrix of domination. http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45a/252.html
Florido, A. (2021, May 28). Teachers say laws banning critical race theory are putting a chill on their lessons. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2021/05/28/1000537206/teachers-laws-banning-critical-race-theory-are-leading-to-self-censorship
Franca, J. (2019). Henry Giroux: Those arguing that education should be neutral are really arguing for a version of education in which nobody is accountable. Interview with Henry Giroux. http://lab.cccb.org/en/henry-giroux-those-arguing-that-education-should-be-neutral-are-really-arguing-for-a-version-of-education-in-which-nobody-is-accountable/
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Lati, M. (2021, May 29). What is critical race theory, and why do Republicans want to ban it in schools? The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/05/29/critical-race-theory-bans-schools/
Liptak, K. (2020, September 6). Trump says Department of Education will investigate use of 1619 Project in schools. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/09/06/politics/trump-education-department-1619-project/index.html
Newkirk, V. (2017, October 6). The language of White supremacy. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/the-language-of-white-supremacy/542148/
pbriggsiam. (2013, June 12). Myles Horton - Radical Hillbilly - A Wisdom Teacher for Activism and Civic Engagement [Video]. https://youtu.be/qSwW0zc-QBQ
Pulitzer Center. (n.d.). The 1619 Project Curriculum. https://pulitzercenter.org/lesson-plan-grouping/1619-project-curriculum
Voight, J. (2020, September 4). Memorandum for the heads of executive departments and agencies. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/M-20-34.pdf
Weiner, E. J. (2021). Teachable Moments: Educated Hope in Times of Crisis. Dio Press
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