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In defense of Critical Race Theory

A Tempest panel discussion

This is a lightly edited transcript of a panel on Critical Race Theory organized by the Tempest Collective. It features Jesse Hagopian, Denisha Jones, and Naomi Murakawa, and is chaired by Tempest member Eric Maroney.

Eric Maroney

This event is hosted by the Tempest Collective. We aim to create a space for the Left to come together, discuss, and debate. Our goal is to put forward a revolutionary vision that is clear and weighs in on strategic questions of our moment, offers concrete guidance, political theory, and presents a consistent working-class politics of socialism from below.

We are proud to present an amazing group of panelists who are going to lead us through a discussion about the attacks on Critical Race Theory (CRT), how those attacks are part of a broader backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement, and how we can organize to stop them.

Before we begin, I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the passing of bell hooks, one of the intellectual powerhouses of the left and a veteran of the Black, queer, and women’s liberation struggles. Her work is among those that the Right is opposing and attempting to silence.

Now, let me introduce our panelists. First, we have Jesse Hagopian, who is an ethnic studies teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle. He’s a member of the Black Lives Matter at School national steering committee and co-editor of Black Lives Matter at School from Haymarket Books.

After Jesse, we’re going to hear from Denisha Jones, Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College, Co-Director for Defending the Early Years, Assistant Executive Director for the Badass Teachers Association, and co-editor of Black Lives Matter at School.

We will round out our panel with Naomi Murakawa. She is an Associate Professor in African-American studies at Princeton University, the series editor of Haymarket’s Abolitionist Papers, and author of The First Civil Right: How Liberals Built Prison America. She is also a member of the Tempest Collective.

With that, I’m going to go ahead and turn it over to Jesse to kick us off and be followed by the other panelists.

Jesse Hagopian

I’m excited to be with you all for this important discussion. It feels of monumental importance to be able to gather with community at a time when we’re grieving the loss of bell hooks. It just feels better not to be alone. She influenced everybody who was interested in liberatory pedagogy and intersectional movements for justice.

Thanks for offering me this opportunity to talk about the fact that in some 14 states across the country politicians have passed laws to outlaw teaching Critical Race Theory—that is, teaching the truth to children. This is all over the country, North and South. We’re talking about Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Tennessee, Utah, North Dakota, and more.

Some 28 states have introduced legislation that attempts to require teachers to lie to students about structural racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression. We’ve seen the 1619 Project come under attack.

The Zinn Education Project and Black Lives Matter at School have all become some of the primary targets of this right-wing attack. Of course, this isn’t the first attack on Black education. This has been a permanent feature of American society from the time when it was outlawed for my ancestors, enslaved Black people, to be literate—something punishable by maiming and death—to Reconstruction when over six hundred black schools were burnt down between 1866 and 1876.

It didn’t end then. White supremacists burnt down Freedom Schools during the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. And today they are trying to reduce anti-racist pedagogy to ashes.

The irony is that in their zeal to ban the teaching of structural racism, they have effectively banned the teaching of all that they idolize. They would like us to abandon texts from Black luminaries like bell hooks and Toni Morrison and stick to teaching about the founding documents.

But the founders wrote into the Constitution that Black people were three-fifths of a human being. So, if you follow the letter of the CRT bans, we can’t even teach the Constitution, because it exposes the country’s racism back to its very political and economic formation.

In another example of the boundless satire that is the United States of America, Juneteenth just became a federal holiday at the same moment when it has become illegal to teach about it in many states. The refrain of “land of the free” continues to take on new and intricate shades of mockery.

The great paradox of these anti-CRT bans is that they are confirming the central claims of Critical Race Theory—that racism is embedded in the law, even when it appears to use race-neutral language, and that any progress towards racial justice will be met with a white supremacist backlash. That’s really what we’re seeing.

The uncritical race theorists are certainly organizing this criminalization of anti-racism as part of the backlash against the Black Lives Matter uprising in 2020. That produced the broadest protest in U.S. history. It was led by Black people in every state but joined by millions of other people of color and white people.

We’re facing a vicious counterattack against our movement. Take for instance, Matthew Hawn, who I just spoke to a couple of days ago. He is a teacher in Tennessee. He was fired from his job for assigning a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay and a poem by Kayla Jenee Lacey about white privilege.

Amy Donofrio was fired from a school in Florida for having a Black Lives Matter flag in her classroom. She was teaching at Robert E. Lee High School. No wonder she felt the need to have a flag that affirmed the lives of Black people.

All around the country, teachers are receiving physical threats for teaching the truth. There was a teacher, just a few hours south of Seattle, where I live and teach, who received physical threats for signing the pledge that I helped launch with the Zinn Education Project to teach the truth. The threats have gotten so bad that even the attorney general had to issue a statement saying that they will be investigating attacks on educators.

The Right is worried about the kind of anti-racist conversations that could occur and the consequences that could happen from them if you read books by Alice Walker and others. That’s why they’re banning books again.

But you must have a way to explain racial inequality for most of American history. The popular explanation for inequalities was biological inferiority, right? This overt scientific racism was mainstream American thought of the eugenics movement.

States with CRT legislation as of October 7, 2021. Image by Jabbi.

The new anti-Critical Race Theory bill in South Carolina would ban teaching that race and sex are social constructs. This would literally bring us back to a eugenicist explanation of the biological understandings of race and make it respectable again.

But Critical Race Theory has a different explanation about race that says that it’s a social construct, a structural feature of American history and society. The Right knows that this is a threat to them. That’s why they are quickly moving to ban books across the country.  In South Carolina, they have removed The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

In New Hampshire, they have removed Fences, a play by August Wilson. They’ve already banned teaching about structural racism in New Hampshire, but they wanted to make sure they were clear. So, they’re passing another law, a loyalty oath law that would ban public school teachers from promoting any theory that depicts US history or its founding in a negative light, including the idea that it was founded on racism.

The bill is updating a Cold War-era law that bans educators from advocating communism in schools and adds additional bans on advocating socialism and Marxism. It’s incredible how the Republicans right now are howling about Marxist plots behind Critical Race Theory.

The Idaho representative, Ron Nate explained his sponsorship of the bill that passed there by saying:

House Bill 377 is a great win for Idaho because it prohibits the promotion of Social Justice programming and advocacy for Critical Race Theory (CRT) in our schools and universities. CRT, rooted in Marxist thought, is a pernicious way of viewing the world. It demands that everything in society be viewed through the lens of racism, sexism, and power.

To understand this attack on Critical Race Theory today, we really must understand the history of McCarthyism in this country. McCarthyism had an enormous impact on teachers and education.

In the late 1940s and early 50s, the U.S. experienced a virulent anti-communist witch hunt. It wasn’t started by Wisconsin’s Senator Joseph McCarthy, but he certainly helped bring it to a boil. Thousands of people around the nation were condemned before they even answered the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”

This attack started before McCarthy under Democratic Party president Harry Truman, who signed Executive Order 9835, which established a loyalty program for federal employees. In the following year, some 5 million investigations of public employees were conducted. Thousands of people were fired and imprisoned.

No one was safe. Radical workers were targeted in government jobs, industry, Hollywood, and schools. There was a suffocating chokehold of suspicion used to strangle any vocalization of dissent from any unquestioning allegiance to the stars and stripes.

These attacks were against people who identified as Communists, who were leading some of the most dynamic anti-racist and labor struggles in the country. At the same time, the label was applied to all other people who had any criticism of the government or any organized dissent. They were victimized and any criticism of the U.S. was practically criminalized.

Many hundreds of educators were dismissed from schools under suspicion of being a Communist in New York City alone; 409 teachers were purged from the school system after being labeled communist. Some 30,000 educators in Los Angeles were forced to submit to loyalty oaths.

These attacks were advertised as being about containing the Soviet Union, but in reality, the Red Scare was primarily about two things. One was disrupting the militancy of the labor movement that was often led by socialists and, two, disrupting the Black Freedom Struggle. Today, the red-baiting of Critical Race Theory is about maintaining white supremacy and capitalist power.

I want you to consider the words of Christopher Bedford, who’s a senior editor at The Federalist. He really made clear the underlying objectives of this attack on Critical Race Theory. He said,

“Our schools—from preschool all the way to graduate programs—have gone seriously astray in a way that no single law can ever hope to fix. Masks, ‘critical race theory,’ or whatever you want to call it, is a visible sore on our schools. They are painful symptoms of a much deeper sickness … Every year this country spends $640 billion on public K-12 education, and a huge share of that money is going to people with evil ideas who want to poison your children to think the same way … So, what’s the solution? The answer is to think bigger … Here’s what we should do: Defund the schools for real.”

That’s what is behind this attack on Critical Race Theory. They want to defund education and continue to fill the pockets of the wealthiest people. The GOP has made the attack on teaching about structural racism the centerpiece of their attempt to regain power in the 2022 and 2024 elections. This is really shaping up to be a generational battle against racism, akin to the struggle to desegregate the schools.

But this struggle is about a lot more than just the elections. One of the primary ways that the billionaire class maintains its power has always been through controlling what is acceptable knowledge. This is part of what Henry Giroux has called the violence of organized forgetting.

The current attacks on Critical Race Theory, on ethnic studies, on critical pedagogy is not just antics or a distraction from the real issues as I hear liberals sometimes frame the issue, but I think instead should be understood as attempted episteme-icide, the killing, silencing, and annihilation of entire systems of knowledge.

Therefore, we are building the Teach the Truth movement. We must engage in what Dr. Jarvis R. Givens has called fugitive pedagogy. The Zinn Education Project has teamed up with Black Lives Matter at School and the African American Policy Forum to lead a series of rallies over the summer. On October 14, George Floyd’s birthday, we called for educators across the country to teach lessons about structural racism.

I think today’s struggle against these bills banning teaching about structural racism is a struggle, not just about education, but really about the entirety of what kind of society we are going to live in. It’s about whether a multiracial democracy is still even a goal.

It’s a struggle over whether we’re going to return to the hysteria and paranoia and destructiveness of the McCarthy era. And it’s a struggle over whether the past really will be remembered at all or finally just thrown down the memory hole in the service of maintaining white supremacy and the concentration of power in the hands of a tiny billionaire class.

I’ll just end with the words of bell hooks, who said,

“My hope emerges from those places of struggle where I witness individuals positively transforming their lives and the world around them. Educating is a vocation rooted in hopefulness. As teachers, we believe that learning is possible, that nothing can keep an open mind from seeking after knowledge and finding a way to know.”

Denisha Jones

Thank you for setting the stage, Jesse. A lot of these reactionary laws impact K-12 education, but they also apply to public higher education. I’m fortunate that I’m at a private institution and I’m in New York, which has not had these bills passed, at least not yet.

In states that have these laws like Florida and Idaho, professors who teach and develop Critical Race Theory are now being threatened. One example of this is from a colleague of mine at the University of Florida.

After the murder of George Floyd, a lot of institutions put out statements. At the same time, there was a big push on college campuses by college students who wanted to see more than just statements.

At the University of Florida, the students met with the faculty and voiced how they wanted the college to respond. My colleague there created a doctoral concentration [on CRT] in his department. Now, mind you, this is a concentration in the graduate doctoral program, not the entire program. The department is not forcing every student to take an introduction to Critical Race Theory in their freshman year.

You can choose to study critical theories on race, ethnicity, culture, and education. The department’s faculty thought that would help students who wanted to specialize in these issues in their doctoral work.

Now the college has come back to say that the department must drop the words “critical” and “race” if they want to move forward with that concentration, because of pressure on the university from the state government.

My colleague is a young Black man who recently took this job. He now must consider whether he can continue working there in this environment. I think the ACLU and other organizations are going to have to step in to protect basic academic freedoms.

How can the state law prevent an adult from paying to go to college and learning something that they choose to learn? How is that not a violation of that student’s right to be in college and have an option to take that class? This is just one example of how these laws are impacting faculty and threatening academic freedom.

Such attacks expose the hypocrisy of such universities’ commitment to “diversity, equity and inclusion” (EDI). They all talk about EDI. But now they are divorcing EDI from Critical Race Theory. That will mean reducing EDI to whitewashed professional development.

Divorcing the study of race and society from such critical theories will enable the continuation of racist ideas like “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” “achievement gaps,” and those sorts of things. If you deny students any understanding of systemic racism, you end up blaming Black people for inequality.

One of the quotes being shared by bell hooks is how important theory is to understand oppression and inequality in society. Critical Race Theory for those of us in education has been vital to understanding data about schools from a lens that does not blame Black children.

It puts all the data in a social context of systemic racism. These laws are going to prevent us from teaching it. Without Critical Race Theory, people will fall back on those old tropes that we know continue to harm students. It will make a mockery of EDI.

I think about the students at my college at Sarah Lawrence and other schools. They’re very hungry for this knowledge. I teach one class where we might read Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. They want more of this. They want to read bell hooks.

But amidst the backlash against Critical Race Theory, professors aren’t stepping forward to teach such material. Why? Because they’re afraid. All of this is limiting what’s possible for students to study. Schools are being attacked, teachers are being attacked, and students are being denied the opportunity to learn.

But students are demanding that the schools change their policies and allow them to study the roots, history, and reality of racism. But schools are being told they can’t do these things right because of these new laws. So, there’s a big disconnect between what many young people are asking for and what schools are delivering.

Students want access to this knowledge earlier and earlier. They don’t want to wait till they get to grad school to have access. Why should Critical Race Theory be limited just to law students and doctoral students? Why can’t undergrads have access to it? So, the situation is scary for professors, teachers, and students.

The other thing I think is important is what bell hooks called parenting for liberation. It also made me think about its opposite—teaching for oppression. A colleague of mine recently shared photos from a talk he gave about this in homeschooling. One of them was an advertisement for School of the West. Its homepage announces, “Welcome to White Wellbeing.”

It declares that “it is an educational resource for homeschooling parents for the betterment of Western-kind. Our mission: provide quality homeschooling material that addresses educational or psychological needs: enable our children to develop self-esteem by providing them the truth about their heritage: create a worldwide community for our parents and their children.”

Now, this is a private organization for homeschooling parents. But it is a sign of the times. These narratives teach white supremacy and oppression.

Compare that to what’s happening to schools for Black and Brown children. They’re being denied the right to teach actual history about racism and struggles for liberation. This history is being gutted from K-12 education. Now go to state colleges and universities. It’s being gutted there too.

Frederick Douglass talked about one of the worst things about education for Black children is how it leaves our children unprepared to work for our people. It teaches our children to accept and internalize Black inferiority.

In my class on the Foundations of Education, we looked at some of the state laws, Ohio in particular. We analyzed K-12 schooling, and we found that they not only bar studying texts and theories but also bar engaging in any type of activity with an organization.

They’re really trying to get rid of service-learning with social justice organizations, which a lot of schools were doing. Now those for-credit programs are being abolished.

These laws are closing off students’ minds. They’re preventing teachers from teaching the truth. And they’re not allowing students to engage as active citizens in civic life, which is something we should want students to be doing in high school.

That’s the opposite of parenting for liberation, of loving and nurturing children in the way bell hooks talked about. It’s a form of abuse to intentionally deny children the ability to learn these things and to engage in civic capacities. Bettina Love explains how schools in this way are “spirit murdering” Black and Brown minds.

These laws are also a part of the effort to get rid of public education. In Florida, for example, they underfund schools and limit the range of education. When parents threaten to leave in protest, the politicians tell them to take their kids to a charter school. This will create conditions in education like New Orleans, where the whole system became privatized charter schools.

The same is happening in higher education. States have decreased funding, cut programs, and eliminated classes on subjects. The degrees that people are getting are not worth anything because they don’t have the actual critical skills that employers are looking for. And graduates can’t contribute to their community because they don’t know how.

All this will encourage people to say we don’t need to fund public education at any level. That will lead to the proliferation of for-profit online options. Public education is under threat in every way.

In the process, teachers are under attack, as Jesse said. These loyalty oaths are a threat to freedom in K-12. In higher education, it’s limiting professors’ academic freedom. And it’s limiting the choices students must learn.

Most of us learned these things when we went to college. Now there’ll be a whole generation of kids who don’t even learn and engage in these topics and have these conversations in college because they live in certain states that have banned things like Critical Race Theory.

Naomi Murakawa

Thank you Denisha and Jesse. And thank you to Tempest for hosting this conversation. Initially, I was confused about the bans on Critical Race Theory, largely because I was paying attention to many liberal media sources where there tends to be a particular formula for speakers addressing the bans.

It goes something like this. They state what CRT is, refer to Derrick Bell and maybe Kimberlé Crenshaw, say that it argues that racism is hegemonic, and then pivot to saying it’s not being taught in schools and rarely taught outside of law school and perhaps in some colleges and universities. This liberal formula downplays the attack and diminishes the need for resistance to it.

But then I examined more deeply what the laws do. Once I did that, I became much more concerned about the counter-revolutionary forces behind the CRT bans. These could be devastating attacks against BLM, against teachers, against teachers’ unions, and against the entire labor movement.

I want to explain how the CRT bans do all this. The North Carolina law makes it illegal for any theory to be taught in public schools that argues racism is not merely the product of learned individual bias or prejudice but insists that racism is systematically embedded in American society and the American legal system.

The laws that have been passed in Tennessee and that are on verge of passing in Mississippi are even more capacious and vague. These laws make CRT illegal and justify the withdrawal of funding from schools where it is any part of the course of instruction or where any teachers or other employees of the school include it in supplemental educational materials.

It is illegal to teach that “meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex.” It is illegal to teach that “this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist and sexist.” And it is illegal to teach or promote “the division between, or resentment of, race, sex, religion, creed, non-violent political affiliation, social class, or class of people.”

This is the boilerplate type of legislation for others across the country. Based on these laws there have been a lot of complaints already filed. As we just heard from Jesse, Matthew Hawn was just fired in Tennessee for teaching Ta-Nehisi Coates in his social studies class.

Here are some of the other complaints against textbooks, many of which are not even doing CRT. In Tennessee, a group called the Moms for Liberty made a complaint. It was dismissed, not because of its substance, but because it was filed before the statute had gone into effect. They had jumped the gun.

The group contended it was illegal for a textbook in a second-grade curriculum to show photos of white firemen blasting black children “bruising their bodies and ripping off their clothes.”

There’s another grievance against a textbook showing the Norman Rockwell painting called “The Problem We All Live With,” which depicts Ruby Bridges walking into school with the “N word” in the background.

Another one is against a teacher’s manual for instructing educators to “emphasize that nonviolence wasn’t an easy idea, especially for Southern Blacks” and “they met hate every day, including from the all-white police force. They expected unfair arrests, beatings or worse from police.”

These are the kinds of claims that are being brought forward. The Moms Of Liberty summarize what they consider violations with the following punchlines. The textbooks, they claim, wrongly teach: “that white people are bad; that people of color are mistreated (by white people); that America is unjust; and that police officers (and firemen) target people of color.”

They claimed that all of these were violations of the Tennessee statute. Quite frankly, because the statute is written in such a broad fashion, I’m not convinced that this group is wrong.

If this law holds, these textbooks and this kind of curriculum could be thrown under the bus. It’s so bad that the Norman Rockwell version of the Civil Rights Movement is on the precipice of being thought of as unspeakable right now, and just beyond the pale.

These laws are part of a backlash against the Black Lives Matter movement. While there’s controversy over what BLM has achieved so far, I think we can say unequivocally that BLM has achieved the quite monumental feat of forcing a national conversation about white supremacy. Essentially, states that pass laws against CRT are putting a gag order against the issues that BLM has pushed into the public arena.

These attacks on CRT are also a way for states to punish teachers. They are attacking teachers for striking not only over their wages and benefits but also over demands about social justice. This is what the Chicago teachers did victoriously in 2012 and 2019. Teachers in West Virginia, Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma did the same in 2018 in the Red State Teachers Revolt. Teachers in Los Angeles shut down the schools over similar demands in 2019.

What made these strikes so amazing is that we saw teachers as a militant minority using the strike weapon to advance the politics of solidarity. They were striking over a variety of social-justice demands for the improvement in the quality of life and the condition for their students.

More recently, teachers have been part of leading the fight for safe working and learning conditions in the midst of COVID. Teachers have also joined BLM in many cities across the country, demanding the removal of cops from schools.

These connections between teachers’ unions and BLM have not been lost by conservative forces that have been putting together the anti-CRT bans. A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Christopher Rufo, is a very proud, self-proclaimed architect of the CRT bans. He has made his intention to attack teachers’ unions crystal clear.

In a New York Post op-ed, he wrote an article titled, “Embracing critical theory, teacher’s unions says they—not parents—control what kids learn.” He wrote this in the aftermath of the National Education Association saying that they would join Black Lives Matter at School and The Howard Zinn Education Project in a national day of action on George Floyd’s birthday.  Because of that supposedly egregious act, they were called out by Rufo and similar conservatives as “the left-wing ideologues masquerading as educators.”

The punishment of teachers takes several forms with the CRT bans, with the threat of being fired as one of the most obvious. The threat of firing teachers will have a massive chilling effect on what people feel that they can teach at school.

I also think these bans are another way of trying to restructure the work of teaching.

The conservatives want to reduce teaching to executing a set of predetermined, pre-approved tasks that anyone including a 22-year-old volunteer from Teach for America can do with no training.

This is a way of de-skilling the teaching profession. It reminds me of a vision of teaching that bell hooks called “the assembly line approach to educating young people.”

This kind of attack is very much in line with the attacks on public education that we’ve seen in the last couple of decades. They are all part of an effort, as Denisha and Jesse mentioned, to kill public school education, take down unions, and diminish the significance of teaching and teachers.

One final point. I think that the CRT bans are a straight-up attack on high school students and their activism. We have seen a wave of protests by them over everything from BLM to gun violence, climate change, and queer and trans liberation. So, CRT bans are part of a backlash against BLM, public education, teachers and their unions, and a new generation of activists. It is a threat to us all.

Featured Image Credit: Photo by Eric Haynes. Image modified by Tempest.

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Eric Maroney View All

Eric W. Maroney teaches English at Gateway Community College in New Haven, Connecticut. He is a member of the Tempest Collective.