Monday, January 16, 2023

“Thinly Veiled Attempts” – Thinking about CRT and MLK

        On January 10, newly inaugurated Arkansas governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed seven executive orders. One of these banned teaching critical race theory in Arkansas schools, continuing a trend we’ve consistently seen over the last two years. EducationWeek has documented that:

“42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism, according to an Education Week analysis. Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues.”
Arkansas’ ban extols the virtues of education over indoctrination, insisting that educators “should teach students how to think—not what to think.” It then states that: 

“Critical Race Theory (CRT) is antithetical to the traditional American values of neutrality, equality, and fairness. It emphasizes skin color as a person’s primary characteristic, thereby resurrecting segregationist values, which America has fought so hard to reject; … .” 

        For anyone who has followed the ongoing and surreal journey, you might not need an explanation of why this pushback continues whenever we attempt a fuller reckoning with our racist past and present. But it probably is good to remember at least some of the reasons why CRT has been targeted in this way. As EducationWeek points out, CRT simply 

“refers to a decades-old academic theory that holds that racism is systemic, perpetrated by structural forces rather than individual acts of bias. But over the past two years, the phrase has been warped from its original meaning, used by opponents to refer to anything that makes race or gender salient in conversations about history, current events, or literature.” 

To put this another way, this is an overt attempt to discredit and erase a set of ideas and practices that helps us understand how racism works in the world. And it replaces CRT’s analysis of how racism operates within structures and cultures with an emphasis on individual bias. This very conveniently allows discussions about racism to focus on individuals, shielding the true engines driving White supremacy from view or change.

        This is why, last year, the ACLU rightly observed that “At their core, anti ‘CRT’ laws are thinly veiled attempts to silence discussions of race and gender amongst student and educators.” The language is often vague, creating confusion and putting teachers in stressful situations, uncertain about what they are and are not allowed to say and teach. For example, in 2021, a group of Tennessee parents appealed to the state’s anti-CRT law to remove books from the curricula that teach about the Civil Rights Movement. The books labeled as offensive included a children’s book about the March on Washington, two books about Ruby Bridges and school desegregation, and a picture book about the integration of southern California schools in the 1940s. The basis for the appeal is that: 

“the Tennessee law makes lesson plans illegal if students ‘feel discomfort, guilt, or anguish.’ / [One parent explained that] the Williamson County curriculum makes students feel bad about their race, meaning the law should invalidate it.”

The practical result is that teachers are pressured to self-censor, in order to avoid any controversy. And children are robbed of the opportunity to learn about how humans have hurt one another, how they have stood up for what is right, and how they have healed those wounds and created – or tried to create - communities where we learn to live with justice, equity, and compassion. 

This all feels particularly relevant on the annual observance of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The King Center at Stanford University identified “Six Steps of Nonviolent Social Change,” “based on Dr. King’s nonviolent campaigns and teachings that emphasize love in action.” These bans directly undermine and attempt to disempower the approach that King championed and that was a vital part of the Civil Rights movement. We can observe this especially in the first two steps, “Information Gathering” and “Education”: 

Information Gathering
“To understand and articulate an issue, problem or injustice facing a person, community, or institution you must do research. You must investigate and gather all vital information from all sides of the argument or issue so as to increase your understanding of the problem. You must become an expert on your opponent’s position

“It is essential to inform others, including your opposition, about your issue. This minimizes misunderstandings and gains you support and sympathy.”

To counter these troubling trends opposing free access to information and education requires more than outrage. Another of King’s six steps is Direct Action, “taken when the opponent is unwilling to enter into, or remain in, discussion/negotiation.” We intentionally try to bring “a ‘creative tension’ into the conflict, supplying moral pressure on your opponent to work with you in resolving the injustice.” The bans on CRT strike me as a collective unwillingness “to enter into, or remain in, discussion” on the continued issues of racial terrorism in the United States. And they represent another instance in a long history of deflection, of those in power seeking to silence the voices and the histories of Black liberation in the face of White supremacist violence. 

In whatever way you honor Martin Luther King, Jr., I hope you can add a few commitments that last longer than this one day. Especially for White folks, please study, listen, and learn. Read history books, listen to podcasts, study Critical Race Theory. Do the work to gather information and educate yourself, so you can more intentionally and strategically support and participate in anti-racist efforts. And link this to your conversations and community actions. Locally, we continue to be engaged in actions to support our educators dealing with these issues. But alongside these efforts, since history and critical thinking are being banned from our schools, wouldn’t it be great to see more and more of these classes being offered in churches, libraries, after-school clubs, bookstores, and cafes? And wouldn’t it be great if you helped make that happen? 

And while doing so, let’s keep in mind the wisdom that a very young Martin Luther King also shared, that: 

“To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction. / The function of education, therefore, is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. But education which stops with efficiency may prove the greatest menace to society. The most dangerous criminal may be the man gifted with reason, but with no morals. … We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate.”

This is exactly the kind of education we need for this time, joining compassion together with wisdom, and refusing to be distracted or discouraged by the “morass of propaganda” that would keep us from living more fully into the Beloved Community that MLK so passionately described and so determinedly pursued.