A push, led by conservative activists, to ban critical race theory and other "divisive concepts" from education is at the center of the latest culture-war brawl in America — a controversy that is driving fights in some Long Island school districts and prompting the introduction of bills in about a dozen states. It’s a conflict that raises complicated questions and has valid concerns and perspectives on different sides — but also plenty of ugly polemics and fearmongering.
To most liberals and progressives, the conservative campaign is a blatant attempt to stoke white racial paranoia. Liberals argue that critical race theory is being used as a boogeyman to disparage racial equity programs. They also claim that this campaign to ban "dangerous" ideas exposes the hypocrisy of conservative defenses of free speech.
Conservatives counter that they are responding to a real threat — pervasive indoctrination that teaches children and young people that America is evil and white people are racist oppressors. They point to such things as an exercise at a school in San Cupertino, California where 8-year-olds were asked to chart their identities and circle ones that hold "power and privilege."
Critical race theory, which refers to an academic analysis of laws and legal institutions, has become an obnoxious buzzword. But its tenets — that racism is deeply embedded in American life and underlies many seemingly neutral concepts from merit to objectivity — are related to the brand of "anti-racism" currently taught in many schools. It’s not just right-wingers but liberal journalists such as The Atlantic’s George Packer who have reported that this teaching often takes toxic forms, reducing all people to demographic labels and all interactions to oppression.
In that sense, the claim that crusaders against critical race theory don’t understand the concept is irrelevant, especially since most state bills related to this issue never mention the phrase. The Tennessee bill forbids "promoting division" or "resentment" based on race, gender, religion or social class; the North Carolina one bans teaching that individuals should feel "guilt" or "psychological distress" based on race or gender.
The argument that these efforts limit free speech is misguided insofar as they focus on K-12 education, which is not meant to be an intellectual free-for-all (few progressives oppose bans on teaching creationism or pro-Confederacy propaganda). However, a few states, including New Hampshire, Arkansas and West Virginia, would also restrict the teaching of certain ideas in colleges and universities, raising First Amendment concerns.
Claims that Republicans are trying to ban teaching about slavery or racial violence are pure hyperbole. But it’s true that the bills’ language is often so broad it could apply to a wide variety of content. The prohibition on promoting race-based guilt or discomfort, for instance, could empower a backlash against the teaching of ugly chapters from our history, including slavery.
Some who oppose progressive excesses are warning against misguided responses. Former New York magazine columnist Andrew Sullivan argues that conservative activists should push for free debate, not bans on ideas. Conservative writer David French suggests that, where students are stigmatized for being white and/or male, civil rights lawsuits based on existing legislation are a far better remedy than new laws against bad concepts.
Unfortunately, thoughtful discourse has little chance right now. The right is using a real problem to rally its troops; the left is circling the wagons and denying the problem; and the shouting and mutual accusations make conversation impossible.
Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.