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Fred L. Pincus: Critical race debate has old roots

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Fred L. Pincus

The current controversy over critical race theory in the schools is nothing new. Thirty-seven years ago, I published an article with the headline “Book Banning and the New Right: Censorship in the Public Schools.”

In the introduction, I wrote: “The charges made by the new right are all too familiar: Many prize-winning works of contemporary fiction are said to be obscene, immoral and too negative. Textbooks are said to devote too much space to criticizing racism, sexism and other social problems and not enough space to ‘emphasizing the positive,’ especially with regard to patriotism and the nuclear family.”

Sound familiar?

When history repeats itself, of course, it’s not exactly the same. In the ‘80s during the Reagan administration, the boogeyman was “secular humanism,” something that most Americans had never heard of. New right conservatives harshly criticized “godless” schools and insisted that biology textbooks should include sections on creationism along with evolution.

The 2021 boogeyman is critical race theory, something most Americans, including teachers and progressives, had never heard of until it was popularized by former President Donald Trump and his supporters. Today’s conservatives are concerned with books and curriculum materials that distort history (in their view) and make whites feel guilty and uncomfortable.

In many ways, both conservatives and progressives are stronger and more polarized today than in the past. In 1980, Black people and women were just beginning to influence the school curriculum. Black studies and women’s studies were only 10 years old, and many liberals were still ambivalent about diversifying the curriculum. LGBTQ rights were not yet on the agenda. New right critics were starting to emerge from marginality and gain some credibility among mainstream conservatives.

Today, especially outside of the South, diversity and inclusion are current buzzwords and have made important inroads to the curriculum. Black, Hispanic and women’s history months are widely recognized. Racist and sexist language has been significantly reduced, at least in the classroom. Some inclusion policies are quite modest but some forms of diversity have been institutionalized. We have social movements to thank for this.

More contemporary conservatives, never happy with diversity and inclusion, are increasingly rebelling. Emboldened by Donald Trump’s attack on critical race theory, they have gotten elected to school boards and attended meetings en masse. They rail against critical race theory without being able to say exactly what it is. 

Credit for weaponizing the term goes to Christopher Rufo, who began writing articles about it in July 2020 for the conservative Manhattan Institute. Rufo appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox New show on Sept. 2, 2020, and is credited with helping Trump with the anti-critical race theory executive order the former president signed in September 2020.

Media Matters, a media watchdog group, found that Fox News mentioned critical race theory only 12 times between June and August 2020. It shot up to 69 times in September that year, after Rufo appeared on Fox News. April 2021 found 107 mentions, shooting up to 901 in June 2021.

Conservatives hit pay dirt when they started talking about parents’ rights in education. At least eight states have passed laws banning CRT in the schools and more are under consideration

As someone who has taught race relations at the college level for more than 40 years, I find it impossible to avoid using concepts like systemic racism or white privilege and still be accurate. Banning CRT is just an excuse to avoid teaching about racism, both historically and at the present moment.

Yes, some white people may become uncomfortable, and sometimes guilty, when learning the truth. I tell them: You, as an individual, are not responsible for the past, but you are responsible for what happens now and in the future.

Fred L. Pincus is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.


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