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Critical Race Theory: Not Actually A Thing, Reprise

December 31, 2021

It was just five months ago I first wrote about this controversy. I am not fond of returning to topics in which I have made my views abundantly clear, but if these last few months have shown us anything it’s that this is not an issue that is disappearing anytime soon. It is futile to simply point out that Christopher Rufo and his cronies at the Manhattan Institute don’t know what Critical Race Theory actually is. As Rufo makes clear, he doesn’t care what it means. He just want to ensure that any culture war item he and other conservatives object to finds itself attached to it. In other words, his objection isn’t intellectual or even moral–it’s strategic.

Certainly, public education as a battlefield for the culture war is not exactly a new concept–we are fast approaching the 100 year anniversary of the Scopes Trial. The rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s with the likes of William Bennett and Edwin Meese and their dire prognostications of A Nation at Risk almost pass for quaint four decades on.

So this isn’t new. But why is it happening now?

There are few possible explanations for this. The mainstreaming of Black Lives Matter has no doubt frightened some who were quite happy to dismiss the organization as a violent, fringe group. It is much harder to dismiss them as such when the name of their movement appears on your Amazon.com log in page. Those that are quite content never having to confront the challenges of racism often don’t take kindly to an insistent voice that reminds them of their moral obligation to do otherwise. Railing against Critical Race Theory and the teaching of antiracism and cultural diversity is a way back home–if we get those things (whether real or imagined) out of the school, we can go back to not thinking about it.

This may account for some of the backlash. But I don’t think that’s all or even most of it. To really get at the heart of what’s happening, we need to travel back to pre-COVID America, which was really just two years ago.

In pre-COVID America, there was a group of people called education reformers, who were desperately trying to dismantle the public school system. They wanted to replace it with vouchers, or private schools, or for profit charter schools. To do so, they had to emphasize the need for high stakes testing ( to manufacture the data of failure), demonize teachers unions as organizations that protected the jobs of child molesters, insist that enthusiastic young college graduates with no job protections were ideal teachers, and even better: you could be protected from the potential sex offender teaching your kid algebra by a face on a computer screen. This was all for the endgame of turning education into a profitable venture for investors.

Moreover, this approach was working, so much so that mainstream Democrats like Rahm Emmanuel, Cory Booker and…Barack Obama became enthusiastic supporters of the reformers’ agenda long before Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education. It was looking good for the reformers.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly no one could go to their local school. And something remarkable happened–parents suddenly realized how difficult a job it was to be a school teacher, and perhaps teachers were not overpaid, lazy leeches on the taxpayer. Many teachers worked hard to engaged their students in distance learning, showed up at students’ homes with a Chromebook and donated food, organized end-of-year car parades, and dropped off personal, individually printed graduation signs to seniors stuck at home. In short, teachers started to become popular, and taxpayers started to think of their schools as the community centers they were always intended to be.

And everyone realized that distance learning should not be the future of education because it sucks.

So what were the reformers to do? Their entire agenda had been debunked by a coronavirus. They had a choice–admit they got it wrong and support local schools, or reframe their objections in a way that would galvanize a different kind of outrage. Spoiler alert–they picked the latter.

So the problem with schools now is that they are indoctrinating students with anti-racism (why teaching only a Eurocentric version of history does not count as indoctrination is never explained), forcing students to surrender their constitutional freedoms to mask mandates (which are usually put in place by state governors, but it’s much easier to harass school boards because they tend to lack armed bodyguards), and offering recognition of transgender students (which overall bothers parents way more than students). In other words, a channel for outrage and apprehension at a moment when large swaths of our population are overwhelmed with anxiety and feel an alarming lack of control.

You have to hand it to the reformers. They do know how to read the room. If only they would put their energy into actual problems with public education (poor funding, lack of qualified administrators, too much high stakes testing) they might become part of the solution, instead of generating most of the problems.

But that approach won’t make any profits for investors.

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