Tennessee Republicans continue to rally around the cultural crusade of the moment: banning the school of thought known as critical race theory. The theory, which in part explores how systems and institutions perpetuate inequality, somehow became a national GOP talking point, with lawmakers and talking heads claiming CRT has seeped into elementary schools to teach our kids that some people are inherently racist, or that this country’s sole function is to oppress people of color.
Never mind that there’s little evidence that critical race theory — which, again, is a legal theory, not some pedagogical tool for young kids — is even taught in elementary schools. And never mind the fact that, as contributor Lena Mazel previously wrote in the Scene, Republicans can’t even agree on a clear definition for critical race theory. Despite all that, in May, Gov. Bill Lee signed into a law a ban on critical race theory, forced through by GOP lawmakers.
At the federal level, Sen. Marsha Blackburn is joining a call to disavow teaching CRT in K-12 classrooms. She was one of more than 30 Republicans calling on the U.S. Department of Education to withdraw its Proposed Priorities for history and civics education.
“Critical race theory has no place in American schools,” Blackburn said in a statement this week. “The tenets of critical race theory are based in the destructive ideal of inherent racism and will teach our children to judge and self-segregate based solely on skin color.”
Of course, the term “critical race theory” isn’t mentioned in the education department's priorities document. There are calls for “anti-racist” practices and “identity safe” classrooms, which may be related to CRT, but no mention of CRT as a teaching tool or in any other context.
The document also quotes education experts Dorothy Steele and Becki Cohn-Vargas’ definition on identity-safe spaces, and it doesn't exactly sound like the sort of stuff that sparks race riots: “Identity safe classrooms are those in which teachers strive to assure students that their social identities are an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom. And, through strong positive relationships and opportunities to learn, they feel they are welcomed, supported, and valued as members of the learning community.”
Tennessee Republicans have been presenting themselves as the last line of defense against cultural problems that don’t really exist. We saw this with their anti-trans bills, which they often portray as protecting women — whether in bathrooms or on athletic fields. And with the ban on critical race theory now signed into law, they portray themselves as protecting the sensitive minds of children who, according to at least one of the GOP’s amorphous and shifting depictions of the theory, will be taught that they're either hopelessly oppressed or savage racist tyrants.
That’s roughly the argument put forth by Rep. Jeremy Faison in a blog post for the Tennessee House Republican Caucus’ website (and a similar op-ed for The Tennessean). The post is designed to explain why Republicans banned critical race theory, but at eight paragraphs in length, there’s a real lack of insight into the law, which affects school curriculum statewide.
“Your Tennessee General Assembly makes laws that protect the integrity of our state and defend those of us who are the most vulnerable,” he writes. “This time, the group in desperate need of defense is our children.”
Faison shares no proof “our strides as a country towards progress will no longer be accurately taught under CRT.” He has no evidence critical race theory is in the classrooms or that it has negative effects on children. He doesn’t even dive into the free-speech debate, which seems like an especially glaring oversight. In Oklahoma, which passed a similar ban, we already see teachers fearing a chilling effect on their classes. One community college instructor says her class on race and ethnicity was canceled because of the ban.
The right fearmongers over progressive agendas in education, even as we've long heard stories about textbooks simplifying or outright ignoring the history of slavery. This country’s peculiar institution — as well as its legacy of Jim Crow laws, voter suppression and various forms of obvious and subtle oppression — has never truly received proper analysis in our education system. What Republicans are defending isn’t an accurate version of history, but a nefarious myth.
Faison's post doesn't say how those ugly parts of our history can still be accurately and fairly taught under this critical race theory ban.
Of course, this legislation is for the most part political theater. Republicans across the country have a strange fixation on so-called culture wars, which seems to be one of the few unifiers of the party during its Trump-sparked identity crisis. But sometimes these culture fights have a real impact — banning trans athletes from sports teams may not affect many people, but it still hurts those kids and sends a hateful message.
And locally, all the talk about protecting kids and students comes off as especially hypocritical when Republicans continue to stay chummy with Rep. David Byrd, who has been credibly accused of sexually assaulting members of the girls’ high school basketball team he coached.
Faison’s blog post reads like a lazy high school civics essay and offers no actual legislative reflections. And yet it sticks with me. What bothers me the most — even beyond its faulty arguments — is the fact Faison uses his biracial son as a political prop. Faison's son Gage is mentioned in the opening lines, right next to a photo of the two — as though this simple picture somehow proves that Faison understands race relations better than scholars who study inequality and disparity.
“My son Gage will not be taught that he is held back because of the color of his skin,” Faison writes at the start of the post. “I voted to ban CRT because Gage is his own artist of his own masterpiece, and so are you. Your circumstances don’t define you. Your actions and pursuits will define you.”
While it’s true that circumstances don’t “define” us, they definitely determine many factors of our life. Your ZIP code alone can predict how long you're likely to live — why wouldn’t things like class or race also influence your journey through life? I don’t know if what Faison wants for Gage actually reflects his son’s reality. Gage didn’t write the post, after all — his dad did. And I hope no one is actually telling Gage he can’t go as far as he may want to in whatever it is he wants to pursue, just because of his skin color. But I also hope no one is telling Gage fairy tales and hiding the ugly histories of this country from him.
If Faison wants to bring up family, let's bring up family.
My father is from Nicaragua, and he has always spoken openly to me about the discrimination he faced as a Latino immigrant — discrimination from cops, employers and more. He never told me I would be denied opportunities or that I couldn’t accomplish certain things or that I was somehow “less than” my white American counterparts — but he did tell me there were people in the world who wouldn’t be kind or fair solely because of my name or my appearance (even as white-passing as I am). As I got older, it became clearer that these issues weren’t just person-to-person matters, but issues embedded in how the country operates.
Similarly, my mother, a white American, has never been shy to talk about this country’s racism. Whether it was about the founding fathers owning slaves or politicians like Trump, my mom knows how power works in this country, especially when wielded by a select group of powerful white men. And "select group of powerful white men" certainly describes the circus tent at the Tennessee Capitol.
Republicans can't effectively or constitutionally ban critical race theory outright — but they might be banning the ability for classrooms to ask tough questions about society, about how this country has historically treated vulnerable groups, and how the scars from those legacies still shape this country. Those discussions can be scary and difficult, but they make us stronger and smarter, no matter our ethnicity or class. Avoiding them just makes us weaker and more ignorant.
And in the end, banning discussions about this country’s history of oppression sounds like a pretty textbook example of oppression.