“It’s an attack on the teaching of Black history, women’s history, and history around being impoverished in this country … anything that will challenge the current status quo.”
—Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of women and gender studies at Loyola University and president of the National Women’s Studies Association
Updated on August 17 at 8:20 a.m. PT.
In late 2020, the Idaho Freedom Foundation released two reports condemning college administrators and faculty at the University of Idaho and Boise State for promoting “social justice ideology” in higher education.
Using red, yellow and green color-coding, the reports labeled academic departments as “indoctrination majors,” “social justice in training majors,” and the foundation’s preferred “professional majors” depending on how much they emphasized social justice. The list of “indoctrination majors” included women’s, gender and sexuality studies (WGSS), Africana Studies and Latin American Studies.
CRT is a legal framework developed in the 1970s and 1980s to examine the ongoing effects of slavery and how racism has shaped U.S. laws and institutions. But Idaho lawmakers used the phrase to refer to discussions of racism, sexism and social justice issues in the classroom. After the Idaho legislature passed the ban on CRT, the lieutenant governor created a task force to review university programs and faculty syllabi for banned content.
“It’s a pretty intimidating environment for teaching,” said Leontina Hormel, a sociology professor and former director of the WGSS program at the University of Idaho. “They’ve really created a hostile environment for open thinking.”
The current WGSS co-director and English professor Alexandra Teague told Ms., “I’ve heard a lot of conversations among faculty who are concerned about whether there will be ramifications for their teaching or whether they need to rethink what classes are titled in order to reduce scrutiny on them.”
The Idaho ban is part of a conservative wave of bans on discussing social justice issues in American schools and workplaces.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund challenged the “equity gag order,” describing it as having a “chilling effect on free speech and the dissemination of truthful information about systemic and structural inequalities, which undermines workplace equality for people of color, women, and LGBTQ individuals.”
On his first day in office, Biden revoked Trump’s order, but U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rep. Burgess Owens (R-Utah) have introduced in Congress a bill—called the END CRT Act—to reinstate the ban.
Meanwhile, conservative states are banning CRT in public schools and universities. In the first six months of 2021, 26 states have tried to limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism in their classrooms, according to an Education Week analysis. These bills often use the exact language of the Trump executive order.
Nine states so far have enacted these bans. In New Hampshire, for example, the governor signed a budget bill including language banning teachers from discussing race, gender, and other identity characteristics in certain ways in K-12 public schools, and a new Ohio law bans teaching about unconscious bias. A North Carolina law prohibits public schools from teaching Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project, a New York Times series about the ongoing impact of slavery and racism on American society.
At the federal level, Senator Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) has introduced the Saving American History Act to ban federally funded schools from teaching the 1619 Project. These anti-CRT laws restrict how educators can teach social justice issues.
According to Media Matters, Fox News mentioned the phrase “critical race theory” nearly 1,300 times between February and May of 2021. This coverage characterized CRT as an unpatriotic and divisive form of indoctrination that perpetuates racism against white people.
“The attack on critical race theory says we should only teach patriotic education. In other words, only white history should be taught.”
Smith College professor Loretta Ross argues that while conservative commentators and lawmakers bemoan cancel culture and the supposed liberal threats to free speech on campus, they are at the same time trying to shut down discussions about inequality and injustice in American society.
“The Republicans falsely claim that the purpose of critical race theory is to teach people of color to hate white people. They believe that white people are the real victims of reverse racism,” said Ross. “The attack on critical race theory says we should only teach patriotic education. In other words, only white history should be taught.”
Dr. Karsonya Wise Whitehead, associate professor of WGSS at Loyola University and president of the National Women’s Studies Association, says CRT has become a catchphrase for any discussion of how race, class and gender function in society.
“I think people confuse critical race theory with culturally responsive teaching. Both of them are CRTs,” said Whitehead.
“A lot of teachers are being penalized…losing their jobs or experiencing other punitive action for these types of dialogues,” said Jalaya Liles-Dunn, director of learning for justice at the Southern Poverty Law Center. The center has received multiple reports of teachers punished for teaching their students about racial injustice, says Liles-Dunn.
Even before the Florida State Board of Education banned critical race theory in public schools state officials were scrutinizing teachers who addressed race in their classrooms. In May, the Florida Department of Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran fired Duval County teacher Any Donofrio for discussing Black Lives Matter in her classes. In early June, the Sullivan County Board of Education in Florida voted to dismiss social studies teacher Matthew Hawn after he led a class discussion on white privilege.
“This is censorship,” said Liles-Dunn. “It’s no different than any other dictatorship that is trying to censor a population from knowing the truth so that they can maintain power.”
While some anti-CRT laws apply only to K-12 schools, several apply to public universities as well, including in Idaho, Oklahoma and Iowa. In Oklahoma, after politicians passed a law in May banning teachers from making students “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex,” Oklahoma City Community College canceled Professor Melissa Smith’s fully-enrolled course on race and ethnicity because of concerns the class ran afoul of the law.
“Our history of the United States is uncomfortable and it should make us uncomfortable and we should grow from that,” Smith told the Washington Post. “And I tell my kids all the time, get comfortable being uncomfortable. And if I don’t make you uncomfortable in class, then I’m not doing my job.”
Whitehead is concerned about the impact of anti-CRT laws on the ability of educators to teach students to think critically about the world.
“This attack on critical race theory has gone beyond a black and white issue with the law. They brought gender into this, and now they are also bringing in poverty,” said Whitehead. “It’s really an attack on the teaching of Black history, women’s history, and history around being impoverished in this country. They don’t want us to critically engage with anything that will challenge the current status quo.”
Another impact of anti-CRT laws is they can further encourage harassment experienced by faculty who teach racial and gender justice courses.
“I have two people who stalk my email,” said Professor Katie Blevins, a WGSS co-director at the University of Idaho. “I have never met these people. They send me deeply disturbing messages a couple of times a week—you know, incredibly graphic emails. It’s disconcerting as a junior female faculty member.”
Whitehead worries that anti-CRT laws will negatively impact WGSS departments, where teaching about racial and gender justice is central to the curriculum.
“It is a concern because we talk about the way in which women are abused in this country—physically abused, emotionally and mentally abused, financially abused,” said Whitehead. “We talk about the wage gap and the subservient position of women.”
Many WGSS programs teach the work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, a founder of critical race theory who also coined the term “intersectionality” for analyzing how race and gender intersect in the lives of Black women. Laws banning CRT could put WGSS faculty and programs in the crosshairs of government officials seeking to enforce them, says Whitehead.
CRT-bans in K-12 schools have prompted teacher protests across the nation. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association have pledged to resist the bans. They passed several measures that explicitly support the use of CRT in curricula, and allocated tens of thousands of dollars to those efforts.
“Culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic. They are bullying teachers and trying to stop us from teaching students accurate history,” said American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten. “The backlash [to teaching about race] that you see in these radicalized circles is going to hurt kids.”
The African American Policy Forum, BLM at Schools and Zinn Education Project has issued a national call to educators to hold events August 26-28th to pledge to teach the truth. They have developed a toolkit and are organizing to prepare educators in the impacted states for civil disobedience on October 14th—George Floyd’s Birthday.
University professors are also speaking out against laws limiting discussions of racism and sexism, arguing that these laws infringe academic freedom and open inquiry on university campuses. In June, over 135 scholarly associations issued a joint statement condemning state laws that “seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking.”
Despite efforts to shut down discussions of racism and sexism, Teague says students are more eager than ever to have these discussions.
“The students I’ve talked to are the most impassioned about the value of having very open discussions, about the value of critical thinking, about the value of the humanities,” said Teague. At the end of the semester, her students told her “how much it mattered to them to hear voices that were not like their own, how much they were learning about themselves and others, and how crucial that was in a world that so often gets reduced to sound-bite thinking and binaries.”
Just at the point when confederate monuments are finally coming down, conservative politicians are trying to erect barriers to students learning accurate and inclusive history of the United States to the detriment of young people, says Liles-Dunn. “Education should not be the battlefield for political issues and political agendas. We are using our most vulnerable and our most precious as bait in this fight and it’s not okay.”