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GOP bills banning critical race theory are racist, and Democrats should say so

Making white people uncomfortable is being made a crime.
Photo illustration: A donkey holding a blank sign with three dots on it against a red background with multiple signs that read,\"Stop teaching Critical Racist Theory to our kids\".
In response to GOP lies about critical race theory, Democrats have either ignored what the GOP is doing or said, "Schools aren’t teaching CRT," which is correct but not helpful.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Reuters

Republicans believe they've found their winning issue for the 2022 election: banning what they call critical race theory from being taught to students from kindergarten to college. This is especially true in swing states like Wisconsin where, after Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, vetoed the GOP-controlled Legislature’s bill banning the subject, the leading GOP candidates for governor are seeing who can out-CRT-ban the other. Forget that CRT is a law school topic: The GOP is returning to the phantom menace it believes will scare and win over white suburban voters given their belief that Republican Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governor’s race last year on that issue.

The trend of banning CRT is dangerous and not just typical political theater.

The trend of banning CRT is dangerous and not just typical political theater. We are already seeing how these broadly worded CRT bans, enacted by Republicans in 14 states, are erasing the history of being Black in America. A history teacher in Oklahoma City feared using the word “white” to describe people who defended slavery because it could be a fireable offense under Oklahoma’s new law. Because of a New Hampshire law, a teacher there stopped connecting Jim Crow-era laws to today’s Black-white wealth gap. A Florida teacher was removed from the classroom for displaying a Black Lives Matter flag in her classroom, which Florida’s white conservative education commissioner found to be in violation of the state’s CRT ban.

It’s long past time that Democrats pushed back hard to combat the GOP’s lies and to ensure Black history — which is American history — is accurately taught in our schools. Democrats should call these CRT bans what they are: racist attempts to erase the history of Black achievement and the history of Black suffering at the hands of white people. Those facts should be taught so students understand the full history of our great nation: those moments we can be proud of and those that are utterly horrific.

However, to date, Democrats have responded by ignoring what the GOP is doing or by saying, “Schools aren’t teaching CRT,” which is technically correct, but insufficient in that it implies that CRT is bad and shouldn’t be taught.

The worst reaction came during the 2021 Virginia race for governor. When asked about parents’ objections to certain school content, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe said, “I don’t think parents should be telling schools what they should teach.” McAuliffe ignored the fact that there are good, well-intentioned parents who ask questions about what their children are learning. Democrats must make an effort to address their concerns. But they shouldn’t play games. They should say the CRT bans are racist. Period.

Despite 14 states having enacted these bans, the Republican Party is just getting warmed up. According to The Washington Post, 27 states are considering bans that would limit teachers’ ability to discuss race in ways that offend the GOP.

As PEN America aptly noted, these bans amount to “educational gag orders.”

None of these laws accurately describes CRT, a concept discussed in law schools about institutionalized racism. In fact, the bill Iowa’s Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds signed into law does not even mention CRT but instead ambiguously bans teaching topics that could cause a student to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” because of their race or sex. This broad language is having a chilling effect and leading to teachers censoring themselves out of fear of losing their jobs. As PEN America aptly noted, these bans amount to “educational gag orders.”

In Tennessee, a group called Moms for Liberty filed a complaint seeking to bar a curriculum titled “Civil Rights Heroes” that details the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Ruby Bridges. The group was unsuccessful, but the state’s CRT ban has prompted a review of 30 books for possible removal from the curriculum. In Florida, the GOP is championing a bill that one prominent supporter says will allow teachers to note that slavery was “wrong” but not allow them to “take sides” and say “that one race purposefully did it.”

Yes, the GOP wants to teach slavery in a racially neutral way. Can you say “whitewashing”? Probably not if you are a teacher in one of the 14 states with a CRT ban; you may be fired.

The true goal of these laws — as we have seen since they were enacted — is to erase the history of Black Americans because it causes some subset of white people to feel “discomfort." That’s why those Tennessee moms want to ban lessons about Bridges and King in. It’s why others on the right want discussions on slavery not to mention the race of the slave owners.

As Heather McGhee wrote in her bestselling book "The Sum of Us," there are some white people who believe that when a Black person achieves something it’s plus one for Black people and minus one for white people. Similarly, it appears some Republicans believe if students learn that white people committed horrific wrongs against Black people, that would be a loss for white people and a win for Black people.

Apparently “white fragility,” to borrow author Robin DiAngelo's phrase, is at an all-time high. It is animating the right’s desperate attempts to preserve white supremacy through coordinated efforts to suppress the vote and through CRT bans.

The goal of these laws is to erase the history of Black Americans because it causes some subset of white people to feel "discomfort."

There’s no silver bullet in how to counter the GOP’s dishonest CRT rhetoric, but one helpful example can be found in the effective framing being used to counter the GOP-championed bill in Florida that could result in teachers being sued if they discuss LGBTQ issues in school. Critics have dubbed this proposed legislation the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, since the goal is to erase the LGBTQ community from students' view. That framing summarizes the bigoted goal of the legislation and puts the GOP on the defensive.

With its CRT bans, the GOP’s goal is not about protecting children; it’s about preserving white supremacy. It’s time Democrats call out those measures for what they are.

Perhaps they should frame the bans as the “Erase Black History” bills or the “Don’t Say Black” bills. Either way, they should bluntly describe the bills as racist and let the GOP try to explain why they’re not. The exact language can be debated, but we know Democrats must do more than the nothing they’re doing now.