Republicans help maintain racism by undermining critical race theory in public education

The duality of hardly teaching about racism and about the lives of people of color standardizes an education of racist ideas.

Ibram X. Kendi
Opinion contributor

Editor's note: In an excerpt from Ibram X. Kendi's latest book published this week, "How to Raise an Antiracist," Kendi argues in the afterword exclusive to USA TODAY that the maintenance of racism requires a perpetual undermining of public education – at the detriment of American children. 

“Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction” – went the title of the first official police account. The man was stopped by police on May 25, 2020, Memorial Day, suspected of “forgery.” When “two officers arrived” on the scene, they ordered the man “to step from his car,” the police account alleged. After he got out, he “physically resisted officers.” As officers handcuffed the man, “he appeared to be suffering medical distress,” the account stated, and officers “called for an ambulance.” He was “transported” to the hospital “by ambulance where he died a short time later.”

But a cellphone video by 17-year-old Darnella Frazier captured George Floyd handcuffed, facedown, and Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on his neck for nearly 10 minutes as Floyd cried out “I can’t breathe,” cried out for his mother, and eventually lost consciousness. Frazier’s video was uploaded to Facebook. In three weeks, nearly eight out of 10 Americans had seen some or all of the recording. By the summer’s end, between 15 and 26 million Americans in all 50 states took to the streets in the largest series of demonstrations in American history.

Core curriculum in schools remains overwhelmingly white

Many parents were unprepared for this so-called reckoning. It’s not that there weren’t resources: Parents of younger children could have used the picture book "Something Happened in Our Town." Parents of teens could have used Angie Thomas’s "The Hate U Give" or "All American Boys" by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. After Floyd’s murder, just 34% of white parents of children ages 6 to 11 had conversations “on occasion” with their children about “the need for racial equality.” Teachers were as unprepared as parents. Only 14% of teachers said that year they had the training and resources to offer their students an antiracist education.

Opinions in your inbox:Get exclusive access to our columnists and the best of our columns every day

With state standards found to be inadequate, the textbooks used to meet those standards were also inadequate. One popular textbook, "The American Pageant," labeled enslaved people as “immigrants.” A Florida middle school textbook, "Discovering Our Past," details Thomas Jefferson’s life without mentioning he was an enslaver. U.S. history curricula often “center on the white experience,” as the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered prior to Floyd’s murder. As education scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings once wrote, “All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is: to which culture is it currently oriented.”

Since 2010, a majority of states have adopted the Common Core standards, with its canon of classic works primarily authored by white people. Even the authors presented in the curriculum materials in the New York City public school system – whose student population is only 15% white – remained overwhelmingly white. All of this during our current renaissance of middle- grade and young adult authors of color, including Nic Stone, Darcie Little Badger, Elizabeth Acevedo, Vashti Harrison, Thanhhà Lai, Renée Watson, Erika L. Sánchez, Cherie Dimaline, B. B. Alston, Paula Yoo, Jasmine Warga, and Tomi Adeyemi.

What students are not learning – the absences in their education – can be more harmful than what they are learning. Educators teach when they don’t teach. The duality of hardly teaching about racism and about the lives of people of color standardizes an education of racist ideas. When students don’t learn the racist policy behind the racial inequity in their communities, it can lead them to believe that white people have more because they are more. These racist ideas are reinforced when students see white people more in their curricula.

MORE OPINION:We asked Bernie Sanders to debate Lindsey Graham. Who will win? America.

Students across the United States organized against this education of racist ideas during the summer of 2020. Petitions circulated around communities, like the roughly 1,700 students across 200 school districts who signed up to be organizers for Diversify Our Narrative. Students organized numerous demonstrations like one in mid-June 2020 with about 1,000 young people at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

“We don’t know the truth,” said Kayah Calhoun, a rising senior, speaking for her generation. Eleven-year-old Makayla Downs, who attended with her 12-year-old sister and their mom, said she wants to learn about “not just the Greek gods, but the African gods.” An 18-year-old white organizer named Quinn Fireside bristled, “Everything is told through a white perspective.”

Educators tried to respond to the racial reckoning. Gladwyne Elementary School in suburban Philadelphia decided to teach age- appropriate lessons about racism, privilege, and justice during the last week of classes in June 2020. But parent Elana Yaron Fishbein ripped off a letter to the school superintendent. Fishbein omitted the roughly one-quarter of students of color at the school, complaining about “reprehensible resources designed to inoculate Caucasian children with feelings of guilt for the color of their skin and the ‘sins’ of their forefathers.” These new lessons plan “to indoctrinate the children into the ‘woke’ culture,” she wrote.

And the old lessons? Were they indoctrination?

Ibram X. Kendi is an American historian and writer.

When the teacher primarily imparts the literature and history of white people in a multiracial society, to be racist is to call that education. When the teacher refuses to instruct young people about racism in a society of widespread racial inequity, to be racist is to call that education. When the teacher strives to impart the literature and history of multiple racial groups in a multiracial society, to be racist is to call that indoctrination. When the teacher instructs young people about racism in a society of widespread racial inequity, to be racist is to call that indoctrination. By this illogic, in a society of widespread racial inequity, racism exists is a doctrine and racism doesn’t exist is not a doctrine. By this illogic, teaching the literatures of multiple racial groups in a multiracial society is brainwashing children while primarily teaching the literatures of white people in a multiracial society is not.

'Left-wing' indoctrination in schools is a manufactured problem

Trained in social work with no expertise in curriculum design, Fishbein thought what was helpful for her child was harmful. She launched a campaign against a barely budding antiracist education movement and named her group No Left Turn in Education. In no time, Fishbein’s group was also advocating against teaching about sex and climate change in schools.

By the summer’s end, Fishbein’s group had organized a handful of chapters and fewer than 200 Facebook followers. But in September 2020, she appeared on Tucker Carlson’s primetime Fox News show. She “was totally taken by the harsh criticism” of her letter to the school superintendent. “And in fact,” she said to Carlson, “in some places I told them that they are like lynching me.” In fact, people who were lynched, like George Floyd, don’t live to tell Tucker Carlson they were being lynched.

USA TODAY COLUMNIST:On May 14 in New York, race and history circled me

The manufactured problem of “left-wing indoctrination in our schools” went dormant in the final months of 2020. The actual mayhem came in the new year. After losing the 2020 presidential election by 74 electoral votes and more than 7 million popular votes, Trump indoctrinated his supporters with the Great Lie that the election had been stolen from him – and therefore them. Trump and his GOP operatives lied constantly that “illegal votes” in cities with large Black and brown populations – namely Atlanta, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Detroit, Las Vegas and Phoenix – had stolen the election from (white) patriots who voted legally.

On Jan. 6, 2021, a mob of Trump’s supporters violently stormed the United States Capitol to stop Congress from certifying Trump’s electoral defeat to President- elect Joe Biden. The insurrectionists ransacked offices. They left graffiti on walls. They destroyed or damaged historic items. They left democracy’s floors littered with their feces and the broken glass from the countless windows they smashed. They brutalized police officers who stood in their way. Five people died. Many more were wounded, including more than 100 police officers, four of whom later died by suicide.

FORMER PENCE ADVISER:I saw Trump as a big bully. Then rioters called for my boss, Mike Pence, to be hanged.

It was the most devastating assault on the Capitol since the British burned Washington in 1814 during the War of 1812. One of the insurrectionists flew a Confederate battle flag inside the Capitol for the first time in history. The Union Army held off the Confederate rebels from seizing the Capitol during the Civil War. But the rebels could not be held off on Jan. 6. History rhymed as Republicans and Democrats, including President-elect Biden, issued the same calls for  “unity” and “healing” that deflated the Reconstruction era’s initial promises of justice and equality.

Trump Republicans proclaimed antiracism dangerous to children

For all their talk of truth, of patriotism, of America First, of making America great again, Trump Republicans labored hard in the aftermath of the attack on America’s structural heart to change the subject. To change the existential racial threat. A reversal was made – the existential threat was no longer the racism uncovered in Trump’s presidency and again in Floyd’s murder and again on Jan. 6. Now the existential threat was “critical race theory,” as garbled in GOP disinformation.

One of the founders of CRT, law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, defined CRT as “a way of looking at the law’s role platforming, facilitating, producing, and even insulating racial inequality in our country.” But Trump Republicans made up their own definition of CRT and condemned it. “Critical race theory says every white person is a racist,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said. “Critical race theory says America is fundamentally and irredeemably racist. Critical race theory seeks to turn us against each other and, if someone has different colored skin, seeks to make us hate that person.”

Drumming up outrage against what they defined as CRT were Republican think tanks and periodicals. They drove countless white parents to speak out against CRT at school board meetings in 2021. “[My daughter] is one of the most innocent little girls in the whole world, and she has friends, Black and white kids in her classroom, and she doesn’t see any difference,” a blond-haired white mother said at a school district meeting in Eureka, Missouri (a clip of her speech went viral). “Just because I don’t want critical race theory taught to my children at school doesn’t make me a racist, dammit.”

"How to Raise an Antiracist," by Ibram X. Kendi.

“The aggrieved white parent is perhaps the most potent reactionary figure in this country,” writer Esther Wang explained at the time. And the force driving these reactionary figures: “the need to protect (and save) white children.”

Trump Republicans proclaimed antiracism as dangerous to children, not racism. It was like saying a virus that had been clearly harming the American people wasn’t the existential threat to children; the threat was the effort to protect the children from the virus. Ironically, this idea actually arose at around the same time, in the form of disinformation about the COVID vaccines: Vaccines were dangerous, not COVID-19. How many parents would spend 2021 resisting antiracism, vaccines, and mask mandates in the name of protecting their children? How many children were harmed?

The maintenance of racism requires the public’s ignorance of racism

The attack on antiracist education repackaged the attack on desegregation. The Brown decision outlawing segregated schools “has planted hatred and suspicion where there has been heretofore friendship and understanding,” stated 101 members of Congress in the Southern Manifesto of 1956. And those Jim Crow segregationists were only repackaging the attacks of enslavers. In response to the proliferation of abolitionist literature, proslavery state legislators passed a series of bans and censorship laws in the 1830s. Recognizing how much this campaign led by the plantation class had succeeded, Maine-born traveler John Abbott observed in 1860, “There is not another spot on the globe where the censorship of speech, and of the press, is so rigorous as it is now in the slaveholding States.”

USA TODAY COLUMNIST:This is the story of an HBCU civil rights wrong fixed 65 years later and the hope it offers

The maintenance of racism has required the public’s ignorance of racism. The public’s ignorance of racism requires a perpetual undermining of public education. Enslavers resisted the establishment of free public schools for poor white southerners and made it illegal to teach enslaved Black people to read and write prior to emancipation. After the Civil War, white congressmen declined to pass a bill first proposed in 1881 to provide equal funding to (segregated) Black and white public schools.

The Trump Republicans' efforts to create an atmosphere of conspiracy theories, alternative facts, disinformation, and Great Lies to control people through ignorance have their antecedents in the enslaving South. “In the South, ignorance is an institution,” abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher said at the time. “They legislate for ignorance the same way we legislate for school-houses.”

They still legislate for ignorance.

Ibram X. Kendi, a historian and leading antiracist scholar, is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and the founding director of the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research.