A look at the juncture of critical race theory in education and elections
GEORGIA — Even while the federal government declared Juneteenth a federal holiday on June 17, the United States is far from the idealistic claims that majority-white Georgia Board of Education made in its resolution passed earlier this month. The resolution, which claims the “United States of America is not a racist country, and that … Georgia is not a racist state” takes a normative stance against the teaching of what the board calls “divisive ideologies.”
The divisive ideology largely in question? Critical race theory (CRT), which was developed in the 1970s and originally referred to an academic lens toward history that examines how systems and laws uphold racism at a structural level. CRT in practice shifts the cultural narrative of anti-racism from race-blindness to race-consciousness and recenters the narratives of people of color. CRT breaks the illusion of the mythical post-racial society that so many Republicans have been parroting for years.
Although the resolution does not directly use the words “critical race theory” — which the board was quick to point out during its hearing — the implications of the resolution are a thinly veiled apparent attack on the topic. For starters, the move comes during a time when the teaching of CRT has become the latest political punching bag for conservatives across the nation, thanks in part to Christopher Rufo’s mission to “politicize the [national] bureaucracy” and inflame the language used to describe racial discrimination. The witch trial against CRT took off when Trump released an executive order last September which prevented members of the federal government from teaching how white supremacy is built into everyday systems and influences the actions of white Americans.
The order reads that teachings should not make individuals, on the basis of their race, feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress.” In essence, Trump rebranded feelings of “white guilt” as unlawful “scapegoating.” Over the past year, state-level politicians have also followed suit. Gov. Brian Kemp, for example, wrote and published a letter condemning CRT as a “divisive” and “dangerous” ideology on May 20.
The Georgia Board of Education hearing about the resolution revolved around key tenets of CRT despite the omission of the word from the legalese, including a revisionist restructuring of how history might be taught in Georgia. Of note, much of the language in the decision borrowed from Trump’s executive order, villainizing teachings that could elicit white “guilt or anguish” on the basis of race. Moreover, the resolution specifically points out many of the concerns of CRT that dark money groups like those affiliated with the Heritage Foundation have described and were heavily discussed during the one-hour hearing about the resolution. Both Kemp and state superintendent Richard Woods went on to publicly laud the board for opposing the philosophy.
A resolution is not an enacted legislation, and therefore this decision isn’t completely binding in the eyes of the law yet. However, the decision reinforces a tone of intolerance toward anti-racism education that is already taking hold in the state. Several Georgia counties, like Cherokee and Cobb, already decided to outright ban the teaching of CRT prior to the hearing. Cobb County’s votes were split along party lines, with four Republican members all voting in favor of a ban and three Democrats abstaining from the vote. Cherokee County’s decision rings especially ironic, considering its name is an homage to the land America has stolen from Indigenous peoples.
Forsyth County has since released a statement on its website on May 27, saying it will not teach or promote CRT in its schools. While other counties have yet to take a firm stance on the issue, big players on their boards certainly don’t like the connotations of CRT. In response to the board’s decision, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield stated he would not want CRT taught in his district’s classrooms. The resolution could prompt other counties to soon follow suit, claiming that they are upholding the board’s directive as written in the resolution.
Even more concerning is the compounding effects of stymying race-based education and voter suppression on white supremacy. Heritage Action for America — the sister organization of the aforementioned Heritage Foundation — provided policymakers in several states examples of legislation they could use to sequester CRT from the classroom. Some of these states, including Texas, Oklahoma, and New Hampshire, have already restricted the teaching of CRT in public schools or have introduced a bill to do so in their legislatures. Other big players in elections, like Arizona and Pennsylvania, have introduced similar bills.
Heritage Action for America is also the same group that boasted about composing and fast-tracking the passage of SB 202, Georgia’s latest voter suppression. Further, in the leaked video reported by Mother Jones, executive director Jessica Anderson goes on to brag that it was her who instructed Kemp to sign the bill within an hour of its passing, or else he would appear “weak.” This in turn led to the bill’s infamous backdoor signing, wherein Kemp was surrounded by six white male legislators. In protest, Rep. Park Cannon knocked on the door of the state capitol, for which she was arrested by Georgia State Patrol. The bill imposes significant restrictions on absentee voting and makes elections monitoring more partisan. The group, which is now funneling some $24 million into states that could swing elections, has instigated a concerted effort to uphold systemic racism; it follows that the organization would also not want to teach about the same concept in the classroom.
With CRT, students can learn to identify how inequitable systems affect the laws that underpin elections. The link between attacks on BIPOC rights and the systems that put white supremacist policymakers in office becomes clear. The same counties in Georgia that have been imposing voter suppression tactics, particularly toward BIPOC communities, are the same ones at the forefront of the anti-CRT movement in Georgia. Cobb County, for example, slashed the number of early-voting sites by half between the general and special elections. According to a letter by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and several other organizations, these restrictions particularly targeted Black and brown neighborhoods in South Cobb. Cobb County has also recently attempted to purge more than 16,000 people from the eligible voter list for the same special election. Forsyth and Hall counties have also implemented voter suppression measures, halving the number of early-voting sites.
It is little wonder that some of the biggest proponents of voter suppression tactics are also the biggest proponents of banning CRT across the nation. Prominent Republicans such as Ted Cruz have gone so far as to say, “Critical race theory is bigoted, it is a lie, and it is every bit as racist as the klansmen in white sheets.”
It should be alarming how united the attack on CRT has been across the nation in tandem with voter suppression and maintaining other structures that uphold white supremacy. The influence of dark money players on fortifying these connections should be duly noted. CRT would impact the way that children learn how to recognize systems of oppression and inequality in Georgia, the U.S., and around the world. If we taught children CRT, they could recognize how the law works to maintain structures of inequity. Though the state of Georgia has not yet faced a ban on teaching about the relationship between race, voting, and the nation’s political trajectory, it may be on the horizon. That is, unless organizers and activists come together to resist these undemocratic, racist measures.