IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

McConnell's Republican Senate posse picks up where Trump left off — in schools

Republicans’ assault on academic freedom has been kicked into high gear in the past few weeks.
Photo illustration: The GOP logo behind a burnt hole in a poster for a slave auction.
Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty Images

First, the GOP declared its war on voting access after President Joe Biden's election victory. Then came the GOP's battle to criminalize protests in response to last summer's Black Lives Matter protests. Now the GOP rounds out a trilogy in its war on the foundations of our democracy by seeking to ban schools from teaching students about a subject it doesn't approve of: systemic racism and how it affects our institutions.

This assault on academic freedom has been kicked into high gear in the past few weeks.

This assault on academic freedom has been kicked into high gear in the past few weeks. On April 29, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and 38 fellow Republican senators sent a letter to the Biden administration opposing a proposed Education Department rule that would encourage teachers to share with students the "breadth and depth of our nation's diverse history," including exploring "the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society."

McConnell's letter zeroes in on objections to teachers' using resources from The New York Times' award-winning 1619 Project, which includes a collection of essays and a curriculum about the history of slavery in North America.

But who is he kidding? This is not about the 1619 Project; it's about furthering the right-wing mythology, recently regurgitated by former Sen. Rick Santorum, that White Europeans created America without the help of anyone and without oppressing anyone. Santorum made that point as he told a crowd of young conservatives, "We came here and created a blank slate," adding, "We birthed a nation from nothing."

That's the type of "history" McConnell and others on the right want to indoctrinate students with — not one that tells the truth about a genocide of Native Americans or the significant role slavery played in building America and the systemic racism that manifests in today's institutions as a result.

Interestingly, some of the same GOP leaders who defended preserving Confederate statues because they represent "history" oppose teaching students about the actual history of why these Confederates waged their war.

The GOP's war on freedom of thought goes beyond letters. Republicans are also championing legislation that would in essence defund schools that dare to teach students about critical race theory. While this theory is malleable, one of the central themes is recognizing "that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy," which is why, for example, our criminal justice system consistently replicates different outcomes for people who are white compared to those who are Black and brown. This theory also expressly rejects the idea that the injustices of our criminal justice system are due to a few "bad apples," a fiction GOP leaders often preach.

Not surprisingly, the genesis of the GOP's war on critical race theory and on the 1619 Project can be traced to former President Donald Trump.

The first such measure, signed into law in Idaho last week by Republican Gov. Brad Little, bans funds for schools that teach students critical race theory. The Idaho Legislature had held up approving salaries for weeks for teachers at the state's public schools and universities unless the institutions prohibited teachers from teaching students about systemic racism. The ambiguously written law claims that such teachings "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 well-being of the state of Idaho and its citizens."

What racial divide is the GOP in Idaho speaking of, you may ask? The state's population is 93 percent white and less than 1 percent Black. It appears that white fragility runs deep in Idaho.

Not surprisingly, the genesis of the GOP's war on critical race theory and on the 1619 Project can be traced to former President Donald Trump. In September, Trump slammed educators who taught students about systemic racism and the history of slavery for fueling "hateful lies." In response, Trump created the 1776 Commission to promote a "pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation's great history."

In other words, Trump wanted to whitewash our country's history to make white nationalists feel more comfortable while denying the suffering of people of color and Native Americans. (Biden dissolved the commission.)

Much of this explains the GOP's onslaught of attacks on this subject ever since. In March, one of Trump's BFFs, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, outlined which education topics he did and did not want funded, saying, "There is no room in classrooms for things like critical race theory." In Missouri, a GOP state representative introduced an amendment that would bar school districts from teaching critical race theory. The list of Republican elected officials following suit goes on.

One of the most jaw-dropping — and revealing — moments came recently when Louisiana state Rep. Ray Garofalo Jr. argued for his bill to ban schools from teaching "divisive concepts" about race. Garofalo explained that he wanted students to get all sides of the issue, saying: "If you are having a discussion on whatever the case may be, on slavery, then you can talk about everything dealing with slavery: the good, the bad, the ugly." Yep, the only way he wants slavery discussed is if you also include the "good" side to this evil institution.

This latest episode is further evidence that the GOP is increasingly becoming less a political party and more a white nationalist, authoritarian movement that demands absolute loyalty to the man who incited the Jan. 6 attack on our Capitol. The question that must be asked is: What aspects of democracy does the GOP still embrace?