This is the first installment of an LDF series examining the recent rise of anti-truth laws. The second installment, which takes a broader historical view, can be read here. The third installment examining why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen can be read here. The fourth installment examining the term and history of “woke” can be read here.
The students stood strong. There were more than two dozen of them: a diverse, multi-racial group of high schoolers reflective of the student population at Central York County High School in York County, Pennsylvania. It was September, and the students were united in their demand that their district’s school board lift the ban it had imposed on a swath of books previously part of the curriculum because some parents had determined them too “divisive.” But the students, who were primarily impacted by the imposition of limits on what they are allowed to read and learn in school, had a different opinion.
“We believe that [it] shows discrimination … for banning 80% of books that are from BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] authors,” Christina Ellis, one of the students who mobilized against the parent-led banning of books that largely reflect the diversity of her peers, told Pennsylvania’s WGAL News.
So, the students pushed back, speaking up at school board meetings and leading demonstrations where they held aloft signs reading “Black History is American History,” and “Equality Belongs in Education.” And they won. The ban was reversed.
Recently, Critical Race Theory (CRT), an academic concept taught mostly to law students, has been catapulted into the public dialogue, becoming the catch-all phrase of those seeking to censor educational discussions dealing with race or racial justice in American schools. From the rapid passage of deeply concerning legislation barring the accurate teaching of America’s history in classrooms around the country, threat-laden attacks at school board meetings and against school administrators, and sweeping book bans like the one overturned by the Central York students, the fearmongering around what politically-motivated forces are claiming is CRT has starkly illustrated the ever-shifting weapons being levelled at our multiracial democracy.
Today’s anti-CRT movement epitomizes yet another dangerous and anti-democratic effort to suppress and deny the voices, power, and lived experiences of Black and Brown people in America. Now the target is the truth. The implications of this are already being felt across the country.
CRT is a decades-old legal academic framework that was first developed by legal scholars in the 1970s and ‘80s following the civil rights movement. It is essentially an academic response to the erroneous notion that American society and institutions are “colorblind.”
The scholarly framework holds that racism goes far beyond just individually held prejudices, and that it is in fact a systemic phenomenon woven into the laws and institutions of this nation. A cursory review of U.S. history — or even just news headlines from 2020, where far too many examples of police brutality and violence against Black people propelled a historic racial justice movement — proves the truth of this theory. The classroom itself, currently the focal point of the ongoing fight to suppress uncomfortable truths about America, has traditionally been the site of some of this nation’s most egregious acts of state sponsored racism. This includes segregation, which the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has been at the forefront of challenging since our founder and the first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall successfully litigated Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s.
Unfortunately, 2021 has proven that the ongoing fight against systemic racism is facing a determined pushback. To date, 66 gag orders have been introduced in more than 25 states across the country that effectively put severe restrictions on how American history and issues such as school segregation can be taught or even discussed in classrooms. Many of these measures broadly censor conversations about racism by framing the subject itself as “divisive” and “harmful,” and at least a dozen of these laws have already gone into effect. Even more worryingly, several state legislatures have a staggering and ever-growing number of anti-truth bills already pre-filed for 2022.
Classrooms are again being used as a cudgel to silence the voices and deny the experiences of Black people and other historically marginalized groups in America.
More than 25 states have introduced legislation that could restrict or ban what students can learn and what teachers can teach about our nation’s history. More than 12 states have already passed versions of anti-truth laws or mandated similar statewide policies. (Source: Edweek)
The politically-motivated push against truthful discussions about America’s history has resulted in profoundly disturbing incidents of targeted harassment, including threats of physical violence, against volunteer school board members, teachers, and other school staff. In several states, school officials have contended with mobs of people ostensibly expressing their rage about “Critical Race Theory” by screaming, yelling, and flashing Nazi symbols at school board members. Some school board members have received death threats. Accomplished educators, advocating for public schools to be more inclusive and responsive to the needs of their diverse school populations, are being systematically terrorized out of their posts.
The purveyors of today’s war on truth unsurprisingly also have the written word squarely in their crosshairs. They have moved to banning books that provide an honest chronicling of this country’s history. The disturbing proliferation of book bans in the past few months makes clear that the ultimate goal of these “anti-CRT” efforts is to censor, silence, and suppress Americans’ ability to be fully informed about their own country and the lived experiences of their fellow citizens.
In Tennessee, one group has sought to eliminate the book Ruby Bridges Goes to School from the Williamson County Schools’ K-12 curriculum. Written by the now 67-year-old Bridges, the book tells the famous story of six-year-old Bridges braving an angry mob of segregationist parents who were furious that the Black child was attending a formerly all-white public school in New Orleans. The group argues that the book shouldn’t be used in classrooms because the factual story of what happened to Bridges as a child is not sufficiently redemptive of the white people who targeted her.
The same group has also pushed for a Penguin Young Readers text about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the March on Washington he led for civil rights in 1963, to be removed from the county school curriculum. They claim that the facts about this seminal period in American history and the philosophy of this iconic American civil rights champion will inflict emotional trauma on students.
Other classic works of American literature have been targeted, including Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about American slavery. In Texas, a legislator recently launched an inquiry into whether any books from an extensive list of 850 — most of them titles written by people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, and other historically marginalized groups — are being used in public schools and potentially running afoul of Texas’ new anti-CRT law. In deference to that very law, which was rushed through a special legislative session this summer, educators in Texas have already been given disturbing guidance that they must present students with “opposing perspectives” on the Holocaust.
Today’s fight for truth is part of that ongoing battle for justice. Without truth, there’s no basis for our demands for justice. And that’s why we must fight fiercely to preserve truth. To preserve history in our public schools and libraries to expand our knowledge of history and facts so another generation does not grow up lamenting what they did not learn in school. What they did not learn about who they are, who we are, and all of the possibilities of what we can become.
Restrictions on classroom discussions about race and other so-called “divisive concepts” have also been instituted by lawmakers in Alabama, despite the vocal dissent of parents, educators, and community groups there and testimony from LDF recommending the harmful anti-truth measure be rejected. This year, just after Oklahoma marked the 100th anniversary of the heinous 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, the state legislature there passed a measure broadly limiting discussions about race in K-12 schools and making it illegal for such discussions to leave students feeling racially-based “discomfort.”
In reality, Oklahoma’s vaguely-worded law already appears to be chilling classroom discourse in ways that will impede students from learning their nation’s true history and developing the critical thinking skills they will need to navigate their futures. Teachers in Oklahoma say they have already been prohibited from using words like “diversity” in their classrooms.
Honest and accurate discussions about this country’s history, including shared knowledge about its sordid legacy of systemic racism and the accompanying use of fearmongering and political violence to maintain it, are key to building a more informed electorate who can make our democracy work for all Americans. Yet the realization of a truly functioning multiracial democracy, one in which even the most historically marginalized voices have power, is exactly what the ongoing war on truth aims to disrupt.
At risk in the current furor around the honest teaching of history is the right of all students — particularly students of color — to a full, truthful, and accurate education that includes the freedom to have open dialogue about America’s history and the diverse communities that make up this nation.
As historian Timothy Snyder has warned, the censorship of truth, books, and memory is a precursor to eliminating the voice and influence of a people from the governing of their own country. In America, where the current censorship mania has centered specifically on burying the stories and experiences of the Black, Brown, and Indigenous people who make up a significant portion of this nation, the aim is to bury those voices in the continual remaking of this country, including at the ballot box, the cornerstone of American democracy.
The threats are real, but they are not unprecedented, and certainly not unbeatable. One need only think of the Central York high schoolers who stood up for their right to a truthful, inclusive education — and won.
LDF has compiled answers to the most frequently asked questions about Critical Race Theory. Learn more about CRT, laws banning racial justice discourse, and how these fit into a larger effort to suppress the voices, history, and political participation of Black Americans.
Our students deserve and need more than a white-washed, sanitized, revised version of American history. LDF and coalition partners are fighting back to protect truth. Learn more about our pro-truth advocacy and litigation.