The Republican party has, since the end of the Progressive Era, been a reactionary force in American politics, but not since the days of former Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare have conservatives been so committed to turning back the clock on social progress. The first shot in the latest culture war was fired late last year with former President Trump’s authoritarian push for a patriotic education.
Over the summer, a new front opened in the fight over our education: Republicans in 27 states have taken concrete action to ban the teaching of critical race theory. CRT is an academic concept which posits that race itself is a social construct and that racism is not merely the product of personal bias or prejudice but that it is embedded in institutional structures such as our laws and government policy. The reaction to CRT is far more dangerous to the health of our already disease-riddled democratic society than the theoretical harm that could come from teaching anti-racism.
In American history there are two distinct Red Scares.
The second Red Scare came about with the beginning of the Cold War. McCarthy used his position as Chair of the Senate Government Operations Committee to interrogate government workers he accused of being communists and Soviet spies. Despite never providing any substantial evidence, McCarthy managed to more or less defame hundreds of people. His actions and the actions of his peers inspired various industries, most notably music and film, to create blacklists, barring any suspected communists, socialists or anarchists from working in the mainstream.
On July 7, University of Nebraska Regent Jim Pillen, a Republican gubernatorial hopeful, announced he would propose a resolution to ban the teaching of critical race theory at NU. On July 14, the UNL faculty senate issued a statement opposing such a ban on the grounds that it would infringe upon the academic freedoms of both students and educators. Shortly thereafter NU President Ted Carter and the chancellors of the various NU campuses issued their own statement likewise opposing the proposed ban. On Aug. 9, four days before the Board of Regents voted on the resolution, Governor Pete Ricketts, published a tirade on why he thinks CRT is the new communism.
In the same week, Republicans in the Texas senate proposed an amendment to an education bill that would, among other things, remove Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” from the state’s curriculum. Furthermore, the amendment would remove a requirement that educators in Texas teach that white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan are “morally wrong.”
This reaction against teaching basic facts about the country’s racist past and present is only the opening salvo of a Third Red Scare. Luckily for NU students and faculty, Regent Pillen’s flagrant assault on the academic freedoms of all those in the NU system has failed. On Aug. 13, the Board of Regents voted 5-3 against Pillen’s resolution. Such a gross politicization of our education system should be enough to get Pillen cast into political obscurity for at least a decade.
Unfortunately, such red-baiting will only serve to score political points with a base which has been propagandized to believe that anything adjacent to socialism will invariably lead to a totalitarian Soviet-style dictatorship.
Ultimately, this is largely a distraction from the pressing issues of our time, most urgently, climate change and the degradation of our democratic norms. The fear over critical race theory is largely unfounded and a distraction from meaningful, policy-based discussion about how to fix the things that are wrong with our society.
While I don’t know what the best way to teach anti-racism is, I do think we should teach it because it’s an important step in mitigating interpersonal racism, which is a step in tackling the much larger issue of systematic racism. However, it seems clear, based on the attempts of the American right to ban or limit education about the racist history of this country, that they don’t want to address systemic racism at all.
Republican politicians will continue to rail against CRT and try to link it to some vague Marxist boogeyman. However, it is important to note that just like McCarthy’s Red Scare, there really isn’t much evidence for these claims. Sure, they can give you anecdotes about this one elementary school teacher here or this quickly retracted pamphlet there, but that’s not evidence of any wider trend, those are isolated variables. We shouldn’t make sweeping policy decisions based on a handful of poorly thought out ways of teaching anti-racism.
Nick Finan is a junior political science major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.