A dozen Republican states in the U.S. have introduced laws that prohibit the promotion in schools of any ideology dividing the world into “oppressors” and “victims” according to the color of their skin. It’s a way for the American right to indirectly attack Democratic President Joe Biden, who is very popular thanks to his economic policies.
In a recent speech at a Republican convention in North Carolina, former President Donald Trump was much applauded when he declared that it was necessary “to immediately ban critical race theory in our schools.” In this same American state, the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives recently adopted a law, not yet passed by the Senate, which provides, among other things, that schools will not be able to promote the idea that “an individual, solely by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
At the same time, Ohio has introduced a law that would prohibit teachers from teaching that an individual “bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex.” These formulations point to ideology promoted by authors such as Robin DiAngelo, who explains in her bestseller “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism” that all white Americans are de facto racists since they evolve in a society where white people dominate.
The ideas inspired by this form of antiracism are used during training sessions for teachers and occasionally in courses, with certain instructors who demand that their students study aspects of their identities – white or Black, male or female – and analyze their potential for oppression or victimization in line with those identities. In Nevada, a high school student is suing his school for creating a hostile learning environment by forcing him to thus deconstruct his identity.
Biden in the Crosshairs
Similar bills have been drafted in a dozen Republican-majority states, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, Idaho and Texas, and some have already been adopted. There is, nonetheless, a discrepancy between the law and its effect. In the Republican states where elected officials defend these laws, the influence of identity ideology is limited. Moreover, some lawyers think that these laws unconstitutionally violate the First Amendment right to freedom of expression.
Politically, Republicans are interested in addressing these questions. Since the election of President Biden, whose economic recovery initiative is very popular, the right has attacked the president principally on the grounds of waging a “culture war,” and the fight against critical race theory has become one of the right’s major causes.
The debate is complicated by the fact that the term “critical race theory” is used imprecisely by Republicans. Indeed, “critical race theory” is a line of research that analyses the way in which structural racism persists in society and law. But elected Republican officials and activists critical of the “woke” movement have broadened the term in order to encompass all the extremes of identity-driven antiracism.
The type of approach targeted by these laws exists especially in Democratic states. In San Francisco, California, for example, the principal of a high school recently explained in an article how, throughout teacher training, his institution has begun to “dismantle white supremacy culture.” The article includes an extract from a work that explains that objectivity, perfectionism and the priority accorded the written word form a part of a “culture of white supremacy.” The underlying idea is that non-white children should benefit from a “culturally adapted” pedagogy.
Teacher training in the New York public schools includes the same ideas and references to the same works. More so than in the public schools, this ideology is very much present in elite private schools. Last April, a mathematics teacher was suspended from his position at a well-known New York school because he had expressed doubts during a Zoom discussion in which “objectivity” and “individualism” were described as characteristics of white supremacy.
In this tense debate, the right often exaggerates the problem in order to demonize all the Democrats, while a part of the left refuses to criticize the disturbing aspects of this identity ideology. Between the two, many parents and teachers understand the use of talking about the history of racism and its impact on the present. But they reject the ideologues who want to purge the schools of the culture of white supremacy.