What was once quiet is now loud.
What was once left to allusion and hushed tones has become a thunderous, almost deafening roar.
Over the past few years, legislators around the country have used a barrage of destructive anti-identity legislation to chill speech around systemic racism and oppression. Since September 2020, 699 anti-critical race theory bills have been introduced across local, state, and federal governments. In the first six weeks of 2022 alone, more than 150 anti-LGBTQ+ bills were introduced across the country, and as of Dec. 31, 2022, 28 states have authorized at least one anti-critical race theory measure statewide. In a backlash to the 2020 racial reckoning that challenged the white supremacy that undergirds so many of this country’s institutions, these bills are intended to attack identities that exist outside of a white, male, heteronormative paradigm and preserve the power structures that have allowed white supremacy to flourish.
While this legislation has been offensive on its face, an even more insidious scheme is lurking just beneath the surface. Characterizing discussions of race, gender, and LGBTQ+ experiences as “anti-American,” as some lawmakers have done when introducing these measures, begs the question of who gets to be an American. For many, an American means someone born in the United States, or someone who went through the naturalization process to become a citizen. For others, it means someone whose ancestry has its roots in American soil, who finds kinship in American ideals, and whose family calls the United States home. But what becomes clearer each day is that there’s a well-coordinated and increasingly prominent effort seeking to narrowly define what it means to be an American and who gets to lay claim to Americanism — in a thinly-veiled attempt to maintain and exacerbate a power stronghold over historically marginalized groups.
This effort manifests itself in many ways, including through legislation, declarations, and other measures. For example, in the final months of his presidency, Donald Trump issued an executive order (EO) with the stated purpose of “combat[ing] offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping” in workplace trainings conducted by federal agencies, government contractors, and U.S. military institutions. In effect, this EO operated as a gag order intending to chill diversity, inclusion, and equity training on a broad scale, while attempting to prevent the country from meaningfully working to address its history of systemic oppression and discrimination. And while the executive order was challenged by LDF and revoked by the Biden administration, it helped open the floodgates to an onslaught of legislation aimed at erasing identities and silencing voices of those who fall outside a power structure bolstered by white supremacy.
Following the EO’s issuance, laws taking aim at diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives, critical race theory, and marginalized identities steadily popped up across the country. In April 2022, Florida passed the “Stop W.O.K.E.” Act, a law that strictly regulates school instruction about systemic racism, which LDF and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have successfully challenged in part. In March 2023, Tennessee passed a now temporarily blocked law banning gender-affirming healthcare for minors, and Ohio, Texas, and South Carolina have all passed laws attacking DEI policies on public college campuses.
And, in February 2023, U.S. Senator Tom Cotton introduced a bill that would prevent federal funds from going to schools that teach critical race theory (CRT) and another that would prevent CRT from being taught in Department of Defense institutions, which Congressman Dan Bishop also introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. Critical race theory is an academic and legal framework that indicates that systemic racism is a part of American society. The theory acknowledges that individual prejudice impacts our society, but also that systemic racism has been both pernicious and essential to the creation of our modern society. Notably, CRT has primarily been taught to and used by law students. However, recently it’s been thrust into mainstream American lexicon by those looking to mischaracterize it as indoctrination, divisive, and un-American.
For example, in a press release announcing the bills’ introduction, Sen. Cotton remarked, “Radical activism should have no place in our military’s training. American soldiers should learn how to kill our enemies, not anti-American ideology. This legislation will prevent Department of Defense bureaucrats from teaching woke ideology.” In the same release, Rep. Bishop said, “CRT should have no place in American life and certainly shouldn’t be promoted using American tax dollars … The relentless promotion of these racist, anti-American ideologies is toxic to our country and culture.”
This characterization of CRT as something not belonging in American life or as countering what it means to be American seems to suggest that studying the implications of the United States’ history with race is akin to betraying the country. America reveres its history and founding story, but to imply that one framework to understanding how race impacts the country is anti-American is also a rejection of the true history of this country.
As core to America’s identity as the Bill of Rights and apple pie is the truth that white supremacy undergirds this country’s systems, institutions, and laws. But to reckon with white supremacy we must start with defining it. In 1989, legal scholar Francis Lee Ansley defined white supremacy as:
“A political, economic, and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, and in which white dominance and non-white subordination exists across a broad array of institutions and social settings.”
White supremacy is still pervasive throughout the country. It’s not only seen in overt demonstrations of white nationalism like during the deadly 2017 Charlottesville, Virginia rally and in the racist rhetoric of fringe hate groups, but also in ways both subtle and unsubtle that become embedded in law. There was once a time where this concentration of power was explicitly written into law. Indeed, the Black Codes of the 1860s and Jim Crow laws that spanned decades from the 1870s-1960s were unabashed in their creation of a hierarchy of races.
But after the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s ushered in a wave of legislation protecting equal access to the ballot and fair housing, along with other protective laws, fortifying this hierarchy no longer happened so blatantly. Following a decision in LDF’s landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and the end of legalized racial apartheid in the United States, the overtly discriminatory language of the Jim Crow era was often swapped for “race-neutral” phrasing in public rhetoric and legislation. But, the same goals were still accomplished: white communities were able to retain political, economic, and cultural power.
For example, in 1968, then-presidential candidate Richard Nixon used such veiled messaging during his presidential campaign. Third-party candidate George Wallace was campaigning on a platform that decried counterculture and civil rights, and it was resonating. In order to compete with Wallace’s rise, Nixon positioned himself as a moderate candidate, running on a platform of “law and order.” He claimed to appeal to the “silent majority” that just wanted to preserve unity and to restore peace to the nation. This coded language, as reported by NPR, proved to be successful and helped secure his electoral victory. And it served as a boon to white supremacy, as his law-and-order policies helped ensconce white power while employing race-neutral language, as the Associated Press described.
Today, politicians and others continue to manipulate language with the express goal of enshrining power. For example, “woke” — a term originally used by Black people to signify being aware of the pervasive racial injustices that harm them — has become a villainized centerpiece for derailing anything from teaching students accurate history to human empathy. This exploitation of the word’s original meaning sows confusion and distrust, making the public ripe for manipulation as truth becomes something that’s flimsy and malleable. In this environment of disinformation, white supremacy not only lives, but thrives — and the manipulation of language is one of its primary tools.
Language is incredibly powerful because it’s our primary form of expression. Through writing, reading, and speaking, language is how people convey their needs, emotions, values, and beliefs. It’s a core part of how individuals relate to and interact with the world around them. Language is a key part of the story of America.
Since its founding, the de facto motto of the United States has been “E Pluribus Unum” or “out of many, one.” This phrasing wasn’t chosen at random but was supposed to symbolize the country’s values and belief systems. It signifies American determination and the will to form a collection of states representing one nation. But it also illustrates America’s “melting pot” identity. The United States is a country comprised of people of differing origins and ancestries, but, together, they all form one nation-state.
Except this is only one telling of the American story. It would be quite a stretch to suggest the “many” to which the motto refers have been accepted and allowed to lay claim to the title of American. Indigenous communities have had to endure horrific violence and forced assimilation in order to be called American, despite being native to this land. Countless Black people were trafficked to this nation and forced to build this country, in a physical and economic sense, only to face centuries of oppression and the denial of full citizenship. LGBTQ+ communities have been forced to live in the shadows while being denied basic human rights, and pregnant people have been increasingly denied ownership of their bodies and the ability to exercise their reproductive rights. This marginalization is as much a part of the American story as E Pluribus Unum.
So, when those who occupy the highest halls of power in government, the media, and beyond start to derail the diversity that we’re told sets the United States apart, it undermines the country’s purported values while debasing identities that exist outside those of the founders. An author writing in “The National Review,” a conservative magazine, has described critical race theory and broad discussions of systemic oppression as “un-American,” and the Trump administration has called diversity, equity, and inclusion training “divisive, anti-American propaganda.” Moreover, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who The New Yorker described as being one of the driving forces behind the rise of anti-critical race theory campaigns, told the magazine that, “[s]trung together, the phrase ‘critical race theory’ connotes hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist, anti-American.”
Make no mistake, the linking of discussions of systemic oppression, race, gender expression, and sexual orientation with “anti-American” sentiments is intentional. It’s an attempt to redefine and reclassify who gets to call themselves American, regardless of their relationship to the country. Racial and ethnic diversity are increasing in the United States, and the Census Bureau predicts that by 2044, the United States will become a majority-minority nation. For those looking to entrench the white, patriarchal power structure that has built America, this growing diversity represents a destabilization of the status quo.
Why learn the true history of slavery when it will mean understanding how the institution still appears in the modern carceral system? Why learn about the true founding of the country when it means understanding the genocide indigenous communities faced? Why cultivate diverse schools and workplaces when it means addressing the roots of discrimination that may upend the way America has operated for centuries?
For some individuals in power, this is a threatening outcome that must be stopped. The very act of teaching the history of the Black experience in America becomes anti-American. The act of being intentional and deliberate about ensuring schools and workplaces reflect our richly diverse society becomes anti-American. The positioning of these concepts as anti-American not only implies that they somehow run afoul of American values, but it implies that the communities which these concepts are about have no standing to even call themselves American. But the stories of the horrors of slavery are just as much a part of the country’s story as the American Revolution. So, too, are the stories of the communities that have historically been marginalized, filled with both pain and joy.
America’s core principles as a nation are a commitment to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Americans are grounded by the belief that everyone is equal and born with inalienable rights. While some may question what this means practically, core to the American spirit is that we are all deserving of freedom. But laws that attempt to limit the freedom to show up in public spaces as your authentic self, like Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay Law,” formally the “Parental Rights in Education Act,” and Tennessee’s “Divisive Concepts Act,” don’t reflect America’s founding ideals and traditions, despite claims that they do. “[A]n individual’s relationship to how they see themselves connected to the country, depends, I believe essentially, on what their life experience is,” says Dr. John Baugh, a sociolinguist and the Margaret Bush Wilson Professor of Arts and Science at Washington University in St. Louis in an interview with LDF. Baugh explains further that other factors also contribute to one’s relationship with their country.
“In addition to identity, does the person think that they as an individual, and those who they’re closest to in terms of family or associates — do they feel as though they’ve been treated fairly?” Baugh says. “And that’s broadly defined. Your identity is shaped by that individual experience.”
People relate to the world around them, and therefore their country, through their identity. To limit the ways an individual is allowed to present in public, whether it’s through limitations on gender, race, or sexual orientation, is an attempt to diminish someone’s relationship with their country. It’s an attempt to demean a nuanced and complicated relationship — and to dampen an individual’s agency within this relationship.
For individuals who belong to marginalized communities, their relationship to America is influenced by the suffering, as well as triumphs, in their stories of origin. And it is within the tension of that complex relationship that patriotism is found. For many Black Americans, it is impossible to relate to this country without the lens of Blackness, just like it is impossible for many Americans in LGBTQ+ communities to separate their identities from a relationship with the United States.
“The Constitution begins, ‘We the people,’” says Dr. Steven Smith, author of “Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes” and the Alfred Cowles Professor of Political Science at Yale University in an interview with LDF. “It doesn’t mean we are one, but we are diverse within one. And how to hold those tensions together is to me the essence of statesmanship, the essence of statecraft.”
The introduction of bills that take aim at identity seem to signal an uncomfortableness with this tension and a need for homogeny in an increasingly diverse country. Some legislators claim they are introducing these bills in the name of patriotism. But Americans’ differences are precisely what make America unique. At the same time, Americans’ unique oneness is what makes their relationship with their country stand out from other nations. Legislation, rhetoric, and other measures that, in effect, attempt to reduce uniqueness fail to recognize that embracing differences is part of the American tradition. The key to living up to the idea of American exceptionalism and protecting the life source of democracy is not erecting impossible to scale boundaries around the authority to claim Americanness – but, rather, embracing the common humanity we all inherently share.
On March 31, 2023, Florida students flooded the state Capitol with a loud and clear message: I am not a political agenda. Students were responding to the expansion of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law.
The communities these laws are targeting are not taking it quietly. In response to this campaign, there are growing coalitions of teachers, students, and other groups that are not letting history be erased or rewritten.
There seems to be no end in sight to the introduction and passage of bills designed to maintain white supremacy and perpetuate the systemic oppression of marginalized groups. And while on the surface these bills seem to take aim at many people’s identities, lurking just underneath the surface is a real aim to recodify what it means to be American. In the face of a nation becoming more multicultural every day, there seems to be a swift backlash to the growing diversity that makes the country unique. It’s unclear how far the pendulum will swing or whether the country will take a step off a dangerous precipice, but what is certain is that marginalized communities have made America what it is today and that won’t change.
Public education has been taken hostage in Florida. And the state legislature and governor’s feverish campaign to strictly limit what facts and information can be accessed in public learning institutions is the driving force behind this egregious incursion.
The word “woke” has been a signal urging Black people to be aware of the systems that harm and otherwise put us at a disadvantage since the 1920s. This piece explores how the term “woke” has been manipulated and maligned to hold back racial justice progress.
The first installment of LDF’s original content series examines the attacks on ‘Critical Race Theory’ and efforts to ban books as the latest tactics to halt racial justice.
The third installment explains why truthful, inclusive education benefits all students and how to make it happen.
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.
LDF is at the forefront of the fight to ensure that America lives up to the ideals of justice and equality for all. The right to free expression and the right to vote are cornerstones of our democracy. LDF and coalition partners are fighting back to protect truth.
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.