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Critical race theory, yet another straw man issue

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

An unnamed, unidentified Black man at the raucous Temecula School Board’s mid-March meeting was the latest to feel the wrath of the countless livid, dyed-in-the-wool opponents of anything that smacks of teaching “critical race theory” in the schools. The man had the temerity to oppose the Board’s ban on teaching CRT in the schools. He then got the boot for objecting to a racial slur hurled at him for opposing the Board’s decision.

At last count, nearly 200 right-wing think tanks, advocacy groups and parent groups have railed against CRT teaching in the schools. Fox News  has been on a virtual nonstop crusade against anything that remotely smacks of CRT in the schools.

It’s a straw man issue concocted by the right, since almost no school district in the nation mandates that CRT be taught in the schools. The straw man issue was created to be yet another hammer to browbeat, cow and intimidate school boards, whip up fury among the GOP conservative base and, most importantly, piledrive Democrats with the usual falsehood that Democrats are trying to shove racial guilt down white throats.

Let’s be clear. The term critical race theory goes back almost four decades. Then, a handful of Black scholars and writers came up with the term to name what for decades had simply been called battling racism. The reaction at first was, well, really, no reaction. It seemed a puzzling, overloaded and very academic term that was subject to just about any meaning and interpretation. Trump’s White House grab in 2016 changed that. He publicly demanded a cease-and-desist for any school district and/or teacher that dared stuff students with what he branded “left wing indoctrination.” In plain English, he meant any mention of the pernicious history of racial bias in America.

Trump railed that this fanned the very racism that America had supposedly long gotten past. Worse, it scapegoated whites as the perennial bad guys for all of America’s racial sins. Trump followed his diatribe with an executive order that virtually wiped out any diversity training for federal employees.

The great fear of the conservative attackers, though, is not that teaching about America’s past and present history of racial and social injustice will poison the minds of minority students, but that that it could seep into curriculums and presentations to influence a lot of white elementary and high-school students. This could have a far-reaching political consequence, in that it could decrease generational racial polarization. The GOP banks on that polarization to maintain political power and control in a nation that is on the verge of becoming an ethnic-minority-majority nation.

The study of race and racism is not just a mere academic exercise. It’s a crucial body of scholarly work that has established a direct connection between political power, social organization and language. It has influenced wide fields within education and been the basis of countless court decisions, state and federal laws and local ordinances that have attacked and provided remedies for racial inequities. The 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision is a classic example of how studies on the damaging impact of racial segregation on schoolchildren can play a huge role in law. The studies helped sway a few doubting and reluctant SCOTUS justices on the need to outlaw school segregation. The wide body of race studies has been a staple in fields such as the humanities, the social sciences and teacher education.

The counterattack against critical race theory uses the same game plan used to oppose or roll back every past civil rights act, voting rights act and affirmative action plan. Indeed, anything in law and public policy that even smacks of race is always under conservative fire. Critical race theory opponents have latched onto and shamelessly mangled the color-blind myth that any talk of racial bigotry and bias and its continued devastating impact on American society is racism. This deft turn of the tables has made legions of school districts wary about touching the forbidden subject in any way. The Temecula school district was only the latest in the right-wing steamroll of any teaching that seeks to bring an honest, balanced teaching of history to the schools. For the right, it’s yet another straw man issue.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.