A coalition of more than six dozen scholarly and educational groups have signed onto a statement decrying the spread of proposed legislation limiting classroom discussion of race, racism and other so-called “divisive concepts,” calling such laws an infringement on “the right of faculty to teach and of students to learn” and a broader threat to civic life.
“The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States,” says the statement, whose signatories include the American Historical Association, the American Association of University Professors, the American Federation of Teachers and the Association of American Colleges and Universities.
“The ideal of informed citizenship necessitates an educated public,” the statement continues. “Educators must provide an accurate view of the past in order to better prepare students for community participation and robust civic engagement.”
The statement, which was spearheaded by the free expression group PEN America, comes as more than 20 states including New Hampshire, Michigan, Texas and South Carolina have introduced legislation restricting teaching about race.
Some of these laws have taken aim at “critical race theory,” a framework used to look at how racism is woven into seemingly neutral laws and institutions. Originally developed by legal scholars, it has recently been repurposed by Republican politicians and activists as a catchall term for discussions of race.
Others laws have sought to prohibit classroom use of the 1619 Project, an initiative of The New York Times Magazine that explores the history of slavery, positing the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in Virginia that year as the nation’s “very origin.”
Proponents of the bans present them as efforts to teach facts rather than ideology, and to counter efforts to turn Americans against one another.
“The woke class wants to teach kids to hate each other, rather than teaching them how to read,” Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida said to the state’s board of education earlier this month, shortly before it moved to ban critical race theory.
Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN, which is tracking the laws, said the wording of the proposed bans varies widely, but the most commonly shared language refers to “divisive concepts.” He said the prohibitions were troubling not just for their broadness and vagueness, but for what he called the “fly-by-night nature” of the campaign promoting them.
“These laws are being introduced and passed with little deliberation about what they even say, and what they do,” he said. “That’s highly alarming. The way this is being pursued against scholars and educators of all kinds is an attack on democracy.”
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The public controversy around critical race theory dates to last September, when President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order banning federal contractors from conducting diversity training that drew on critical race theory or other “race-based ideologies” that held, for example, that “the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil.”
That order was rescinded by the Biden administration. But since January, state legislatures have increasingly sought to implement bans, while private groups have also formed to support the effort.
James Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, which represents more than 12,000 historians, cited the formation in May of the 1776 Project PAC, which describes itself as the first national political action committee to target local school board elections. Scholars were already concerned, Grossman said, but that “lit a fire.”
“You have a combination of state legislatures that are interfering with the work of professional educators in a politically tendentious way, combined with a national organization that wants to water down the education of American children,” he said.
The current furor recalls the intense debate in the 1990s over proposed national history standards, which conservatives assailed as painting an overly negative view of the past. But what is happening now, Grossman said, goes further, and amounts to an effort to “eliminate essential aspects of American history from the curriculum.”
“There is a general consensus among historians of the United States that racism has been central to the evolution of American institutions and American culture,” he said. “But teaching that doesn’t mean that you are teaching students to hate them. It means you are teaching students to understand them.”