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September 25, 2021

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EDITORIAL:

Attack on critical race theory is part of GOP’s larger war on truth in education

Image

Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa via AP

This photo provided by Department of Special Collections, McFarlin Library, The University of Tulsa shows crowds of people watching fires during the June 1, 1921, Tulsa Race Massacre in Tulsa, Okla.

Let’s state something that should be obvious. Teaching children about the Tulsa Race Massacre or the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II or any other manifestation of racism in America is not some form of indoctrination.

It’s a lesson in U.S. history. And for our nation to grow and prosper, it’s vital that our children learn these things.

Against a Republican-led effort to ban critical race theory from being taught in public schools, we applaud Nevada’s educational and political leaders who are committed to retaining lessons about racism in history education.

What is critical race theory? Education Week summarizes it this way: “The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”

There can be no argument there. American history is rife with examples of systemic, institutionalized and government-sponsored racism: Jim Crow laws, redlining, a campaign of genocide against Native Americans, War on Drugs policies that produced wildly disproportionate imprisonment of Blacks, segregation in the military, medical abuse of minorities, etc.

And that’s not to mention chattel slavery, which was legal from the colonial period starting in the 1600s to the end of the Civil War in 1865.

There is a central idea in all of this: if we learn about our history honestly, face our problems forthrightly, we can both avoid past mistakes and make a better America going forward.

The GOP forces opposing critical race theory have piled on the hyperbole about it, raging that its purpose is to instill white guilt, provoke further racial divide and inject culture wars into classrooms.

“Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money,” Florida governor and Donald Trump wannabe Ron DeSantis said.

“Our state must reject the neo-racism and race-shaming of critical race theory. We have no time to waste in rooting out this disturbing, divisive and false ideology,” a Republican state lawmaker from Rhode Island said.

Don’t listen to any of this.

This has nothing to do with hating America; to the contrary, it’s about improving the country by learning about it.

The Republicans’ goal isn’t to improve education, it’s to whitewash it. It’s to pretend that racism wasn’t a significant factor in American history and doesn’t remain one.

They tipped their hand when former President Trump formed a special panel, the 1776 Commission, to establish guidelines for a “patriotic education” curriculum. That group — which included not a single professional historian but instead was a collection of right-wing figures — issued an educational framework riddled with cherry-picked facts and information presented grossly out of context. The outcome was a fable that glorified the Founding Fathers while diminishing their hypocrisy over slavery, and downplayed the struggles of oppressed groups to achieve equality. This panel even offered an excuse for slavery, saying in essence that white Americans weren’t the only ones who embraced it. What a terrible lesson for any child: If people around you are doing something awful, it’s somehow less awful for you to do it.

This is what Republicans want children to learn, which is one reason they’re attacking critical race theory. The other is that they’re using the issue to stoke societal division, and are making it a focal point of the 2022 midterm elections.

Meanwhile, legislatures in at least five GOP-led states have approved bans on books and courses espousing critical race theory or related topics. Similar pushes are underway in several other states.

These are the very same people who are spouting the Big Lie now, and using it to justify voter suppression measures. Now they’re supporting the effort to suppress history.

The GOP is behaving just like the Chinese censors who reportedly pressured Microsoft to remove the “tank man” photo from the Tiananmen protests. One of the most famous photos of dissent in China is now being sanitized by Microsoft at China’s urging. This is how history is distorted and hidden to serve a political agenda. China censors and today’s GOP share the same impulses to lie, distort and propagandize.

It’s appalling.

What we are witnessing is nothing more than full-throated white panic. Their despicable goal is to tell only the imaginary story of white America and to diminish, ignore or distort the story of our fellow Americans who happen to not be white.

America’s children need more education about racial issues, and especially the contributions, circumstances and trials faced by all Americans.

Take Georgia, for instance, one of the states where GOP lawmakers are attempting to abolish critical race theory. In the state’s educational standards — the document that defines what gets taught in Georgia’s public schools and how the lessons are presented — 42 of the 45 historic figures that teachers are supposed to mention are white men. The other three are Martin Luther King Jr., former President Barack Obama and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“No knock on white men, but I ask you to imagine what it must feel like for our Native American and Asian American students wondering, ‘Gee whiz! You mean to tell me that absolutely nobody who looks like me did anything of significance in this country’s centuries-old history?’ ” wrote Casey Bethel, Georgia’s 2017 Teacher of the Year, in a guest column for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Consider the incomplete feeling that the 630,000 Black students in Georgia derive from the acknowledgment that only MLK and Obama did anything worth mentioning.”

Well put.

There is a darker implication in the GOP’s actions that goes well beyond our schools. When history books are sanitized to represent the story of one people to the exclusion of others, it is an effort to harden the hearts of a nation against those who are excluded. And that is the first of a march toward unspeakable cruelty. We’ve seen this time and time again in the 20th century. First comes the distorted and sanitized history, then come the ethnic cleansing. Democracy simply requires that truths be told.

Fortunately, Nevada isn’t among the states trying to pull the wool over students’ eyes when it comes to our country’s failings. We understand that informing them helps build a safeguard against our nation repeating the mistakes of past generations.

When the midterms roll around, this is something to keep in mind.