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Bill Whitaker: ‘Critical race theory’ is latest lightning rod in Texas

Bill Whitaker: ‘Critical race theory’ is latest lightning rod in Texas


A year after the shocking death of an African American from Houston at the hands of Minneapolis police officers prompted outraged Americans to spill into the streets to protest racial injustice throughout our land, the battleground over racial politics has shifted to statehouses and school classrooms. Last month, as the Texas Legislature employed procedural sleight of hand to pass a bill imperiling educators who dare teach something called “critical race theory,” Waco Independent School District trustees took stock of what they already knew about the legislation, considered their workforce and minority-majority constituency, then drew a line in the sand. They dared the state of Texas to step over it.

That wasn’t all. For all their marketing savvy as purveyors of sweetness and sweat in the idealistic all-American setting of hearth and home, even Waco’s power couple Chip and Joanna Gaines took a rare public relations pratfall into this bubbling cauldron of race differences. They made a $1,000 donation to Chip’s sister in her school board campaign to ban the teaching of critical race theory in Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District, whose student makeup is 53 percent white, 25 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian American and 6 percent Black. The irony? No one there has proposed teaching it. Some people were angered at the Gaineses, including one who posted this on the Magnolia Facebook page: “Giving support to candidates who wish to whitewash things makes you as complicit as the person committing an act of racism.”

On Juneteenth weekend, a time when many Texans reflect and celebrate that day in 1865 when U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Texas, it’s also a good time to reflect on another summer milestone involving race, this one more complicated than it might seem for all the talk-radio chatter, online memes and distracting political rhetoric. This much is true: The furor about teaching critical race theory speaks to a cultural divide that is only widening and worsening in America, thanks to historical liberties and political opportunism on both sides. Worse, state legislators have made any classroom discussion about history and current events far less likely, especially if a teacher is mandated to fairly convey both sides of an argument over something as evil as the Aug. 3, 2019 massacre targeting Hispanics in El Paso by a 21-year-old white shooter who reportedly left a political manifesto justifying his actions.

Everyone has his or her way of explaining critical race theory. Mine: “CRT” holds that our constitutional principles and legal framework have been structured to handicap minorities to the benefit of whites. No argument there. Given such atrocities as the Framers’ infamous 1787 “three-fifths compromise” applied to census counts of enslaved African Americans for purposes of taxation and representation, it’s pretty hard for tea-party Republicans who once proudly displayed pocket-sized editions of the Constitution to now deny critical race theory without showing their hypocrisy or ignorance. And Texas’ founding as a republic is especially problematic when it comes to racism and slavery. More? Well, consider the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, the Dred Scott decision of 1857, the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896 and, come to think of it, Texas’ so-called “election integrity” bill of 2021 including a provision targeting the “souls-to-the-polls” efforts so popular among churchgoers in Texas’ African American communities. Red-faced Republican lawmakers are now backpedaling furiously, insisting this particular provision was a mistake and will be remedied before the bill’s resurrection in special session later this year.

From 1619 to 2020

But just as champions of the antebellum South still peddle insidious myths about slavery, secession and surrender in the Lost Cause narrative that so distinguished the 1939 film “Gone With the Wind,” some now championing decades-old critical race theory have precipitously hitched their wagons to The New York Times’ 1619 Project, launched in August 2019. This is another misleading narrative that under celebrated journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones holds that the American Revolution was largely waged to perpetuate slavery — a contention rejected by credible mainstream historians such as Gordon Wood and James McPherson as ideologically motivated fact-spinning. The Times quietly amended some of the claims, but the damage was done, in the process crippling critical race theory.

Looking to shore up support among white voters as an old-fashioned law-and-order candidate amid the shambles of his chaotic response to the pandemic, President Trump in 2020 attacked CRT and the 1619 Project as “toxic propaganda, ideological poison, that, if not removed, will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together, will destroy our country.” And just as Republican state legislators nationwide have this year sought to shore up their credentials as Trump disciples by passing new laws restricting the right to vote, many have also taken Trump’s cue to “cancel” critical race theory. In pressing just such a bill in Texas, Republican state Sen. Bryan Hughes was ready and waiting when in floor debate Democratic Sen. Sarah Eckhardt cited as worthy of classroom discussion none other than the controversial and flawed 1619 Project.

“Well, senator, it’s come under scrutiny by historians because there are fundamental factual errors and serious problems with real basic American concepts,” Hughes replied. “And as you know, scholars from the left and the right have been very critical of it. And, again, to suggest that America is so racist at its core as to be irredeemable, to suggest people based on the color of their skin can never overcome biases and can never be fair, can never treat each other fairly, that’s a real problem. Again, there are some very troubling things. I haven’t read all of the essays in the 1619 Project, but I’ve been through a number.”

Eckhardt’s comeback: “So it sounds like an absolutely fabulous [classroom] learning opportunity on media literacy. Why not throw in other things like, for instance, ‘The Big Steal’ in the Trump presidential election?”

Let’s admit it: Groundless leaps to unwarranted conclusions about the Founders and even Abraham Lincoln on slavery, plus baseless claims of a stolen 2020 presidential election in the face of scores of court rulings to the contrary, jointly bolster the disorienting surrealism that confronts and challenges Americans daily, even with Trump gone from the White House. And when Texas Republicans, of all people, argue for inclusion of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in classroom curricula between their speeches justifying voter suppression laws targeting minorities and partisan schemes in the racially discriminatory gerrymandering we’ll soon see, we’re no longer dealing with just alternative facts but alternative universes spinning out of control.

One could detect a certain self-delusion throughout the debate over critical race theory involving our state legislators and fellow constituents, whatever their side. Laura Atlas Kravitz, governmental relations specialist for the venerable Texas State Teachers Association, correctly worried about House Bill 3979’s impact on students’ critical thinking skills, yet perhaps unwittingly raised the specter of how some view critical race theory today: “This is not imposing a viewpoint. It’s teaching. Facts are facts, and sometimes you can’t help it if the facts ring true.” Well, yes, except “facts” these days don’t always ring true, such as when drawn from viewpoints crafted by The New York Times 1619 Project team. Times conservative columnist Bret Stephens, taking issue with the project, smartly described it as “a thesis in search of evidence, not the other way around,” consequently earning scorn from liberal colleagues. Meanwhile, Republican state Rep. Steve Toth proved himself the worst advocate for his own bill by claiming during House debate: “Critical race theory is a form of Marxism, often called neo-Marxism. Just as Marx rejected democratic liberties and the rule of law as a trick to disguise the selfish interest of capitalism, in the same way critical race theory rejects our constitutional liberties and the rule of law as a disguise for the selfish interests of supposedly white supremacist American society.” There’s plenty to unpack in those muddled thoughts, including a spreading plague of self-pitying white grievance and paranoia. Of course, Toth’s claims are true only if so-called “conservatives” once again stretch their ever-elastic definition of socialism to include such elusive propositions as racial justice in America. To complicate matters, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this month signed into law a separate bill creating the “Texas 1836 Project” to “promote patriotic education and increase awareness of the Texas values that continue to stimulate boundless prosperity across this state.” An advisory board will produce an appropriately patriotic pamphlet to be distributed by the Department of Public Safety to residents new to our state, getting them off on the right ideological foot, presumably calming Texas right-wingers wary of the political leanings of citizens moving into our fast-growing domain.

So let’s boil down House Bill 3979, the so-called critical race theory legislation that ironically never mentions “critical race theory” in its text: To its credit, it mandates that social studies curricula survey the history of Native Americans; founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; the first Lincoln-Douglas debate (in a state where Lincoln remains controversial); writings by Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony; Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists stressing “a wall of separation between church and state”; a history of white supremacy, including the Ku Klux Klan “and the way in which it is morally wrong”; Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and his “Letter From Birmingham Jail” (both 1963); the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution; the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the now-hobbled Voting Rights Act of 1965; and more.

Yet this law also teems with generalities and ambiguities, even as it demands relevant documents and writings and speeches be taught. Yes, it stresses that no one should be taught one race is superior to another and that no one should feel shame over his or her race. On the other hand, it gives enough leverage to parents to complain if they perceive excesses in teaching about America’s failures in terms of equality and justice for all. Ultimately, this law will intimidate some teachers, invigorate others, all depending on their grasp of history and current events; their confidence in conveying nuances to students; and their insights into their campus administrations, school boards and communities.

The law offers cover for the more understandably timid teacher, noting that he or she is “prohibited from being compelled to discuss a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs.” Yet it does allow more deft, informed and articulate teachers to mix history and current events, even as it demands, “to the best of the teacher’s ability,” an earnest effort to “explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” It also forbids students from gaining credit for acts of political activism. And most tellingly it prohibits any teacher from requiring of students “an understanding of the 1619 Project.”

‘In the crosshairs’

“When you look at some of the things in this bill, we put our educators right in the crosshairs of complaints that can be lodged against them,” argued Sen. Royce West, a towering African American attorney whose grandfather witnessed the Tulsa race massacre 100 years ago. “We put our educators in a situation to allow the State Board of Education to place sanctions against school districts if they run afoul of this particular bill. How does an educator make a determination as to whether or not they have provided that diverse perspective as it relates to a current issue, whether they have provided the right one and what the impact would be if they get a complaint from a parent that they didn’t provide this perspective?”

This may be why Waco Independent School District trustees, tending to 60 percent of students who are Hispanic, another 29 percent who are African American, as well as their parents, voted last month (and on a motion from one of their more conservative members) to reaffirm their commitment to dismantling racism at about the same moment state legislators surmounted last-minute challenges to their bill marginalizing critical race theory, especially in the form of the famously disputed 1619 Project. “It seems like the Legislature, in rushing to score political points, has failed to really think through what this looks like for a classroom teacher,” Waco ISD Chief of Staff Kyle DeBeer told school board members.

DeBeer cited specific commitments that Superintendent Susan Kincannon and the board have made to educators and the community toward battling institutional racism, then noted the dilemma of what was happening in the Texas Legislature. “At the heart of the concerns we have heard [about this bill], I think there’s a question: If House Bill 3979 becomes law, will it somehow prevent us from following through on those commitments?” DeBeer asked trustees. “Or perhaps phrased a little differently: How can you dismantle institutional racism if talking about race and racism is optional?”

State Sen. West and WISD Chief of Staff DeBeer are right. In an age when more of us are eager to cherry-pick from a history that some of us desperately want to define and justify our race, religion or tribe, teachers trying to do their jobs in a fiercely polarized society face a treacherous minefield not only in what they highlight and interpret (with student input) but also in how they use history as relevant context for events of today. Imagine explaining to someone else’s kid the sometimes violent, statue-vandalizing summer 2020 protests focused on former Texan George Floyd’s brutal death by Minneapolis police or the disgraceful Jan. 6 spectacle of an American president encouraging supporters to employ violence in halting congressional certification of Electoral College results in his opponent’s favor. Good luck, teachers.

All this happens amid an equally disorienting national backdrop. Last week Congress passed a bill making Juneteenth a federal holiday with the Senate approving it unanimously. The bill’s author, African American Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas, incredibly claimed its passage represented our “racial divide crumbling.” The same week Republican Sen. Tom Cotton and his Capitol Hill allies reintroduced a bill to prohibit use of federal funds to teach the 1619 Project. To quote Cotton: “Activists in schools want to teach our kids to hate America and hate each other using discredited critical race theory curricula like the 1619 Project. Federal funds should not pay for activists to masquerade as teachers and indoctrinate our youth.” And when a notorious QAnon-indoctrinated congresswoman who compared Capitol Hill mask-wearing rules to the Holocaust walked back the comment last week, New York humorist Paul Rudnick was waiting to pounce: “The fact that Marjorie Taylor Greene, at 47, had to visit the Holocaust Museum in DC (as a publicity stunt) to announce that the Holocaust was bad is why our schools should teach critical race theory: Imagine what else Marjorie doesn’t know.” All of which conjures up an impassioned plea Morgan Craven, policy director of the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association, made to state senators this spring: “Racism and sexism and discrimination are real. They are real in this country and they are real in this state, and to have a bill that says teachers cannot discuss certain concepts is dangerous for a lot of students and teachers in this state who need to be able to discuss that, not only for the current events that are going on right now but as part of their social studies curriculum.” (Craven was a briefing attorney for then-Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace Jefferson, descendant of a former slave who served on the Waco City Council after the Civil War.) And here’s something reassuring from Gov. Abbott as he signed House Bill 3979 into law last week: “House Bill 3979 is a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas, but more must be done. The issue will be added to a special session agenda.” Guess who’s running for re-election in Texas as Trump Mini-Me?

And, yes, Chip and Jo are catching righteous indignation from the left for donating a thousand bucks to Chip’s sister, who sounds like a lot of other shallow, opportunistic right-wing politicians. In this case Shannon Braun ran for Grapevine-Colleyville ISD school board on the pledge to ban critical race theory when it’s reportedly not under curriculum consideration in the first place. Once again, matters of race are far more complicated than they first appear: Only a year ago the Gaineses, in acknowledgement of racial injustices nationwide, donated $100,000 to the Waco branch of the NAACP and the Waco-based Community Race Relations Coalition and another $100,000 to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and Race Forward. They made a further pledge: “Our Manifesto calls us to listen and learn from others, which right now means dedicating time and resources to fight widespread racism. That work begins within our own company and through the Magnolia Bridge Building initiative with the implementation of diversity and inclusion training for all employees, creation of a Race Relations listening series and participation in Racial Equity Institute workshops for all our leadership.”

I’ve never met the Gaineses here in Waco (for the really ill-informed, he’s white, she’s Asian American), nor would they know me from Adam, but I’d say donating to an out-of-town family member a measly .5 percent of what they donated to four considerable nonprofits devoted to positive strides in civil rights, two of them local, certainly entitles them a little more slack from the rest of us howling in the peanut gallery. That said, Chip’s sister won the school board race, buoyed further by the endorsement of Republican Party of Texas chairman and perennial right-wing agitator Allen West, pausing in his labors bedeviling the Republican governor and lieutenant governor of Texas while pressing hard for a statewide vote on secession. Chairman West praised Shannon Braun for her vow to “push back against the racial socialist agenda and their indoctrination of students.” And so the struggle over America’s original sin of racism and white privilege continues in a nation increasingly swept up in audacity and absurdity. Happy Juneteenth!

Bill Whitaker retired as Waco Tribune-Herald opinion editor in November 2020 after nearly 45 years as a reporter, editor and columnist.

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