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The Fight to Whitewash US History: ‘A Drop of Poison is All You Need’

At least 15 states are trying to ban schools from teaching critical race theory and the 1619 Project. The reactionary movement stretches back to the 1920s and the KKK

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, Lead Illustration by Emma Darvick

On 25 May 2020, a man died after a “medical incident during police interaction” in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The man was suspected of forgery and “believed to be in his 40s”. He “physically resisted officers” and, after being handcuffed, “appeared to be suffering medical distress”. He was taken to the hospital “where he died a short time later”.

It is not difficult to imagine a version of reality where this, the first police account of George Floyd’s brutal death beneath the knee of an implacable police officer, remained the official narrative of what took place in Minneapolis one year ago. That version of reality unfolds every day. Police lies are accepted and endorsed by the press; press accounts are accepted and believed by the public.

That something else happened – that it is now possible for a news organization to say without caveat or qualification that Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd – required herculean effort and extraordinary bravery on the part of millions of people.

The laborious project of establishing truth in the face of official lies is one that Americans embraced during the racial reckoning of the summer of 2020, whether it was individuals speaking out about their experiences of racism at work, or institutions acknowledging their own complicity in racial injustice. For a time, it seemed that America was finally ready to tell a more honest, nuanced story of itself, one that acknowledged the blood at the root.

But alongside this reassessment, another American tradition re-emerged: a reactionary movement bent on reasserting a whitewashed American myth. These reactionary forces have taken aim at efforts to tell an honest version of American history and speak openly about racism by proposing laws in statehouses across the country that would ban the teaching of “critical race theory”, the New York Times’s 1619 Project, and, euphemistically, “divisive concepts”.

The movement is characterized by a childish insistence that children should be taught a false version of the founding of the United States that better resembles a mythic virgin birth than the bloody, painful reality. It would shred the constitution’s first amendment in order to defend the honor of those who drafted its three-fifths clause.

“When you start re-examining the founding myth in light of evidence that’s been discovered in the last 20 years by historians, then that starts to make people doubt the founding myth,” said Christopher S Parker, a professor of political science at the University of Washington who studies reactionary movements. “There’s no room for racism in this myth. Anything that threatens to interrogate the myth is seen as a threat.”

Legislation seeking to limit how teachers talk about race has been considered by at least 15 states, according to an analysis by Education Week.

In Idaho, Governor Brad Little signed into law a measure banning public schools from teaching critical race theory, which it claimed will “exacerbate and inflame divisions on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin, or other criteria in ways contrary to the unity of the nation and the wellbeing of the state of Idaho and its citizens”. The state’s lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, also established a taskforce to “examine indoctrination in Idaho education and to protect our young people from the scourge of critical race theory, socialism, communism, and Marxism”.

In Tennessee, the legislature has approved a bill that would bar public schools from using instructional materials that promote certain concepts, including the idea that, “This state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”

The Texas house of representatives has passed a flurry of legislation related to teaching history, including a bill that would ban any course that would “require an understanding of the 1619 Project” and a bill that would establish an “1836 Project” (a reference to the date of the founding of the Republic of Texas) to “promote patriotic education”.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, in April came out in opposition to a small federal grant program (just $5.25m out of the department of education’s $73.5bn budget) supporting American history and civics education projects that, among other criteria, “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives”.

“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense,” McConnell wrote in a letter to the secretary of education, Miguel Cardona. “Voters did not vote for it. Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil.”

Unsurprisingly, McConnell left out a few pertinent adjectives.

“Whose children are we talking about?” asked LaGarrett King, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Education who has developed a new framework for teaching Black history. “Black parents talk to their kids about racism. Asian American parents talk to their kids about racism. Just say that you don’t want white kids to learn about racism.”

“If we understand the systemic nature of racism, then that will help us really understand our society, and hopefully improve it,” King added. “Laws like this – it’s simply that people do not want to improve society. History is about power, and these people want to continue in a system that they have enjoyed.”

While diversity training and the 1619 Project have been major targets, critical race theory has more recently become the watchword of the moral panic. Developed by Black legal scholars at Harvard in the 1980s, critical race theory is a mode of thinking that examines the ways in which racism was embedded into American law.

“Its effectiveness created a backlash,” said Keffrelyn D Brown, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education who argues that critical race theory does have a place in classrooms. Brown said that she believes students should learn about racism in school, but that teachers need tools and frameworks to make those discussions productive.

“If we are teaching this, we need to think about racism as just as robust a content area as if we were talking about discrete mathematics or the life cycle,” Brown said. “I find that critical race theory provides a really elegant and clear way for students to understand racism from an informed perspective.”

But in the hands of the American right, critical race theory has morphed into an existential threat. In early January, just five days after rightwing rioters had stormed the US Capitol, the Heritage Foundation, a rightwing thinktank with close ties to the Trump administration, hosted a panel discussion about the threat of “the new intolerance” and its “grip on America”.

“Critical race theory is the complete rejection of the best ideas of the American founding. This is some dangerous, dangerous philosophical poisoning in the blood stream,” said Angela Sailor, a VP of the Heritage Foundation’s Feulner Institute and the moderator of the event.

“The rigid persistence with which believers apply this theory has made critical race theory a constant daily presence in the lives of hundreds of millions of people,” she added, in an assessment that will probably come as a surprise to hundreds of millions of people.

The Heritage Foundation has been one of the top campaigners against critical race theory, alongside the Manhattan Institute, another conservative thinktank known for promoting the “broken windows” theory of policing.

Bridging the two groups is Christopher Rufo, a documentary film-maker who has become the leading spokesperson against critical race theory on television and on Twitter. As a visiting fellow at Heritage, he produced a report arguing that critical race theory makes inequality worse, and in April the Manhattan Institute appointed him the director of a new “Initiative on Critical Race Theory”. (Rufo is also affiliated with another rightwing thinktank, the Discovery Institute, which is best known for its repeated attempts to smuggle Christian theology into US public schools under the guise of the pseudoscientific “intelligent design”.)

A host of new organizations has also sprung up to spread the fear of critical race theory far and wide. The Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (Fair) launched recently with an advisory board composed of anti-“woke” media figures and academics. The group is so far encouraging opposition to the grant program McConnell opposed and has highlighted a legal challenge to a debt relief program for Black farmers as a “profile in courage”.

Those who take the Fair “pledge” can also join a message board where members discuss their activism against critical race theory in schools and access resources such as the guide, How to Talk to a Critical Theorist, which begins, “In many ways, Critical Theorists (or specifically Critical Race Theorists) are just like anyone.”

Demonstrators protest critical race theory in front of the Los Alamitos unified school district in California. Photos: EPA/ Étienne Laurent

Parents Defending Education, another new organization, encourages parents to “expose” what’s happening in their schools and offers step-by-step instructions for parents to set up “Woke at X” Instagram accounts to document excessive “wokeness” at their children’s schools.

A new website, What Are They Learning, was set up by the Daily Caller reporter Luke Rosiak to serve as a “woke-e-leaks” for parents to report incidents of teachers mentioning racism in school. “In deep-red, 78% white Indiana, state department of education tells teachers to Talk about Race in the Classroom, cites Ibram X Kendi,” reads one such report. (The actual document submitted is, in fact, titled Talking about Race in the Classroom and appears to be a copy of a webinar offering teachers advice on discussing last year’s Black Lives Matter protests with their students.)

Such initiatives and others – the Educational Liberty Alliance, Critical Race Training in Education, No Left Turn in Education – have received enthusiastic support from the rightwing media, with the New York Post, Daily Caller, Federalist and Fox News serving up a steady stream of outrage fodder about the threat of critical race theory. Since 5 June, Fox News has mentioned “critical race theory” by name in 150 broadcasts, the Atlantic found.

For some of these groups, critical race theory is just one of many “liberal” ideas they don’t want their children to learn. No Left Turn in Education also complains about comprehensive sex education and includes a link on its website to an article suggesting that teaching children about the climate crisis is a form of indoctrination.

For others, it seems possible that attacking critical race theory is just a smokescreen for a bog standard conservative agenda. (Toward the end of the Heritage Foundation’s January panel, the group’s director of its center for education policy told viewers that the “most important” way to fight critical race theory was to support “school choice”, a longstanding policy goal of the right.)

Whatever their motives, today’s reactionaries are picking up the mantle of generations of Americans who have fought to ensure that white children are taught a version of America’s past that is more hagiographic than historic. The echoes are so strong that Adam Laats, a Binghamton University professor who studies the history of education in the US, remarked, “It’s confusing which decade we’re in.”

In the 1920s and 1930s, reactionaries objected to textbooks that gave credence to the progressive historian Charles Beard’s argument that the founders’ motives were not strictly principled, but instead were influenced by economic self-interest, according to Seth Cotlar, a history professor at Willamette University.

In 1923, an Oregon state government controlled by members of the resurgent Ku Klux Klan enacted a law that banned the use of any textbook in schools that “speaks slightingly of the founders of the republic, or of the men who preserved the union, or which belittles or undervalues their work”. And in the 1930s, conservatives waged what Laats called a “frenzied campaign” against the textbooks of Harold Rugg, another progressive historian, that actually resulted in a book burning in Bradner, Ohio.

For those supporting the resurgent Klan, “To speak ill of a founder was akin to a kind of sacrilege,” said Cotlar.

Another battle over textbooks flared in the 1990s when Lynne Cheney launched a high-profile campaign against an effort to introduce new standards for teaching US history, which she found insufficiently “celebratory” and lacking “a tone of affirmation”. Harriet Tubman, the KKK, and McCarthyism all received too much attention, Cheney complained, and George Washington and Robert E Lee not enough.

The decades change; the fixation on maintaining a false idea of historic figures as pure founts of virtue remains. Today, the single contention in the 1619 Project that has drawn the most vociferous outrage is author Nikole Hannah-Jones’s assertion that “one of the primary reasons” colonists fought for independence was to preserve the institution of slavery. Hannah-Jones was denied tenure by the University of North Carolina’s board of trustees, which overruled the dean, faculty and university, reportedly due to political pressure from conservative critics of the 1619 Project.

“Underlying this is the never-solved dilemma about what history class is supposed to do,” said Laats. “For some people it’s supposed to be a pep talk before the game, a well of pure inspiration for young people, and I think that is why the danger seems so intense to conservatives.

“It’s not enough to be balanced; it’s not adequate to say that we balance out criticism of the past with praise of the past. The idea is that a drop of poison is all you need to ruin the well.”

Still, the fact that reactionaries are looking to legislate against certain ideas may be a sign of just how weak their own position is.

Laats suspects that the right is using “critical race theory” as a euphemism. “You can’t go to a school board and say you want to ban the idea that Black Lives Matter.

“They’ve given up on arguing in favor of indoctrination and instead say that critical race theory is the actual indoctrination,” he said of the conservative movement. “They’ve given up on arguing in favor of racism to say that critical race theory is the real racism. This campaign against the teaching of critical race theory is scary, and it’s a sign of great strength, but it’s strength in favor of an idea that’s already lost.”

Or at least, so we hope.

Last week I called Paweł Machcewicz, a Polish historian who has been at the center of a battle in his own country between those who want to tell the truth about the past, and those who want to weaponize history for political purposes. Machcewicz was one of the historians who uncovered evidence of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes, and as the founding director of the Museum of the Second World War in Gdańsk, he attempted to provide an accurate account of Poland’s experience in the war. The far-right ruling party, Law and Justice, deemed the museum insufficiently patriotic and fired him. The next year, the government passed legislation to outlaw accusing Poland of complicity in Nazi war crimes.

“Democracy turned out to be very fragile,” Machcewicz said. “I knew history was important for Law and Justice, but it became a sort of obsession. I never thought that as a founding director of a museum of the second world war, I would become a public enemy.”

“You never know what price you have to pay for independent history,” he added. “I don’t think it will ever go as far in the US as Poland, but some years ago, I also felt quite secure in my country.”

  • Are you a teacher who has been affected by efforts to ban teaching about racism or certain aspects of US history in schools? Contact the author at julia.wong@theguardian.com.