Picture : Protesters outside the Loudoun County School Board headquarters in Ashburn (June 22) (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
With Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the United States at odds over what material should be covered in the classroom, race-related issues have been at the forefront. In the wake of the 2020 killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, the conversation surrounding whether or not students should be taught Critical Race Theory (CRT), has come to the mainstream, with certain states banning the framework on the grounds that it includes “divisive concepts.”
“Critical Race Theory” was originally developed as a framework taught at certain law schools positing that race bias is intrinsic within public institutions. Now, it is being used as a politicized catch-all phrase to reference a wide variety of classroom topics related to racism. The conversation around “CRT” in the classroom began when certain parents heard about race and identity-related assignments in their children’s curriculum: in Cupertino, California a teacher allegedly asked students to label which parts of their identity denoted “power and privilege,” creating a huge stir in the community. Since then, parents have taken to school board meetings to protest what they see as contrary to a “patriotic view of America.” Certain parents in Alabama even complained about the Black History Month programming, which they feared to be part of CRT.
Since 2021, 38 states have introduced legislation that attempts to stop curricular inclusion of theories such as CRT. Many of the bills include parental right to sue if teachers are reported for teaching on such matters deemed “Anti-American” in the classroom. In Kentucky, certain bills include bans on teaching “negative claims about American history”
While private college campuses are exempt from laws designed for public teaching institutions, the legislative battles have made a mark on how private universities approach topics such as CRT. The debate over what constitutes ‘academic freedom’ on university campuses has now reached a boiling point at several religious universities across the US.
Recently, debates over how to teach about race and racism have escalated to harassment, letter wars, petitions across religious colleges, who are home to conservative students and professors, and administations promoting “traditional” views on matters such as LGBT issues, evolution, and abortion. Christian colleges like Biola and Azusa Pacific introduced new diversity initiatives and resources and have dedicated themselves to diversity and inclusion. They have made it known to the student body that diverse topics and teachings are central to their curricula, and one provost even said that diversity is “key to living out who we are.”
Other colleges, though, see discussions of racism and bias as threatening to their religious tenets. The administration at Grove City College commented that the college “rejects Critical Race Theory and similar ‘critical’ schools of thought as antithetical to [its] mission and values” amid several letters and petitions on both sides of the debate.
A professor at Brigham Young University, a Mormon institution, Eric Ruiz Bybee alleges that he was threatened by students in response to his support for a colleague who investigated “whiteness” in a class activity. Students had shared this assignment onto a conservative club’s social media, which then garnered the attention of conservative watch-dog groups. Bybee said that he was subject to “vulgar and even threatening” messages after he asked students to not share class materials outside of the classroom, as per BYU’s honor code.
The heart of this issue is not simply the quandary of how racism should be discussed according to religious values, but could be a bigger question of the values of the US public. Indeed, the political agenda of the religious right regarding race has a long and contentious history. The Moral Majority, one of the first political organizations or the religious right, was created partly in response to the loss of tax-exempt status of certain Christian schools which refused to desegregate. One of the cofounders of the Moral Majority, Jerry Faldwell Sr., founded what is now one of the largest Christian universities in the world, Liberty University, after having founded his own segregated K-12 school in 1967.
However, the religious right aren’t the only conservatives fighting the anti-CRT battle. According to William Frey of Brookings Institution, the anti-CRT bills are aimed at the GOP base, who, he says, are fighting a “war on demography.” He cites studies that show that it is the age group of 65+ who have the biggest issue with teaching about racism, stating that 54 percent of republicans 65 years or older see public attention to racism as “somewhat or very” bad. As the racial breakdown of the United States changes, immigration continues, and white people represent a smaller and smaller percentage each year, older white Americans are the least optimistic about this change. In a Pew Research report, roughly a third of them report that they think it’s “somewhat’ or “very” bad that the percentage of white citizens is declining.
Clearly, the question of how racism and privilege should be discussed in the classroom is one that is dividing the public, some of whom aim to restrict teaching that positions racism as anything but an exception of American history and values. Many scholarly institutions, religious and not, officially denounce white supremacy, however, they are unwilling to face it in their own curriculums. As legislation regarding CRT moves forward, the cultural questions facing private institutions will only become more complicated, and censoring topics will only be of detriment to students who one day may become law makers themselves. Beyond the implications for young Americans, these policies will reflect the general preoccupations of a changing nation whose cultural tensions continue to make themselves known.