By Keith E. Benson
To make sense of America’s fixation with the (non)existence of critical race theory (CRT) in schools and the ways by which CRT became a partisan flashpoint, we must consider this phenomenon as a contemporary manifestation of what Emory University professor Carol Anderson calls, “white rage.”
With corporate news media refusing to unequivocally point out that CRT, a complex legal theory, is not taught in K-12 schools but is taught in some graduate schools of education and law schools, allowed predominantly white grievants and Republican politicians to shapeshift CRT into anything American history-adjacent that offended their whitewashed sensibilities.
Republican lawmakers like Ron DeSantis and Glen Youngkin, along with a host of conservative pundits, Greg Abbott (Texas), and Sarah Huckabee Sanders (Arkansas), and astroturf “parent groups,” don’t want American children – which does include Black children – to learn, and in some cases making it illegal to be taught this history at all.
The decrying of CRT is part of a long American tradition of white backlash that is aided by a well-funded conservative messaging apparatus skilled in amplifying white rage for political gain based on misinformation in efforts to protect whiteness and the societal benefits it provides white Americans.
By exhaustively covering anti-CRT rallies at suburban school board meetings following President Joe Biden’s convincing defeat of Donald Trump in 2020, mass media platformed white grievance in response to an imaginary issue.
A complicit media apparatus, however, is not the only bad actor advancing CRT propaganda. As the organized effort attacking CRT is also bolstered by some of the same education reform advocates who champion school choice as the answer for, ironically, urban Black parents to receive a “better” education.
White backlash, the concept that greater equity achieved through increased political representation or economic opportunity for non-white ethnic groups results in a loss of social status among white Americans, has been ubiquitous throughout our nation’s history.
The passing of the Second Amendment, the amendment conservatives hold so dear – that they are willing to sacrifice the lives of students and school staff to preserve it in its entirety – was passed to pacify slave states by permitting them to arm militias consisting exclusively of white men, to crush efforts by enslaved Black people, if they chose to fight for their freedom as exhibited in the Stono Rebellion (1739) and Haitian Revolution (1791).
The enacting of Black Codes immediately following Emancipation and the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, the nation’s first terrorist organization, founded soon after Black Americans gained access to the franchise; the establishment of school choice resulting from the Brown (1954) decision where white parents refused to integrate southern public schools, and instead began an alternative schooling system in protest of white tax dollars going toward educating Black children are not examples of CRT, but historic examples of how white rage impacts our society today.
In its place, Republican lawmakers are calling for the teaching of white supremacist “classical” “patriotic” history and social studies curriculum that uncritically celebrates American history that lionizes the “founding fathers,” and uncritically champions capitalism.
Aside from conservatives and lawmakers’ commitment to derail students’ understanding of history, is the collection of individual groups like the Center on Educational Excellence, National Charter School Alliance, and National Parents Union who supported those Republican governors’ rise to power in advocacy, or in their silence against lawmakers’ campaign of miseducation
For decades, education reform advocates, consisting primarily of wealthy ideologues and representatives from the business community, publicly lamented the shortcomings in public education as evidenced by test scores and graduation rates.
They argued that privatizing education in the form of school vouchers, charter schooling, online education, and now homeschooling are answers to “underperforming” public schools — a message targeted principally toward Black parents.
While much could be unpacked regarding the nonsensical nature of that argument, through massive funding of “think tanks” and foundations, combined with sustained lobbying of lawmakers of both parties, the goal of shifting collective responsibility of educating all of America’s children through its public schools to that of a private endeavor where parents focus only on what impacts their child directly, has been achieved.
Significant expanses of the country see their public institutions deliberately dismantled and replaced with more voucher and corporate charter schools.
Where is the prominent pushback from the reform community from the likes of KIPP, Teach For America, the Broad Foundation, Democrats for Education Reform, and National Charter Schools Conference, to the deliberate miseducation of America’s students, including the Black students to whom these organizations appealed for decades?
As Republican lawmakers endeavor to pass more choice legislation while simultaneously mandating the whitewashing of American history, we have to ask: Do Black parents have a choice in the type of history their child will learn, or is the concern for Black parents’ choice matter only to conservatives and reformers when weaponized to attack public education?
Keith E. Benson is the author of Education Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ (2018) available on Peter Lang Publishing at www.peterlang.com. He is the President of the Camden Education Association, a board member of the Network for Public Education and co-founder of Working Together, LLC.
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