Critical Race Theory Pioneer Says Republicans Creating 'Phantom Threat' to Gag Teachers

One of the pioneers of critical race theory has accused Republicans of creating a "phantom threat" to justify "jaw-dropping" attacks on racial justice, freedom of speech and a society's understanding of its history.

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw made the comments to Newsweek after GOP lawmakers in Idaho moved to ban the theory from being taught in the state's schools and universities.

The academic theory "maps the nature and workings of 'institutional racism'" in America, according to Kendall Thomas, co-editor along with Crenshaw of Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement.

The theory dates back to the mid-1970s, but has become a politically charged topic in recent months. In April, President Joe Biden's Department of Education issued proposals to update the teaching of American history and civics in schools, incorporating anti-racist works such as The 1619 Project and books by the historian Ibram X. Kendi.

Ian Haney López, a professor at Berkeley Law, previously told Newsweek that critical race theory "rests on the insight that race and racism are social dynamics. This is a point about reality: society, and not nature or God, puts people in positions of being over or under other groups."

Opponents of the education proposals, including the GOP in Idaho, are concerned that federal authorities could force belief systems on students and cause more division.

The Idaho legislation, House Bill 377, prohibits educational institutions from teaching that "any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior"—an idea that the bill claims is often found in critical race theory.

HB 377, signed into law at the end of April, also bans teachings arguing that "individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin." It says no distinction or classification of students shall be made on account of race.

Asked about the Idaho legislation and attempts by other states to remove critical race theory from the curriculum, Crenshaw said: "The attacks on critical race theory in Idaho and across the country are evidence of a frightening truth: Republican legislators are using a phantom threat to justify jaw-dropping attacks on racial justice, freedom of speech and a society's understanding of its history."

She continued: "Democracy itself rests on the idea that our laws and social practices are engaged with real issues. However, in much the same way that attacks on voting rights are justified by non-existent voter fraud, attacks on critical race theory are grounded in reactionary concern about racial progress and the leveling of the playing field.

"And even though the hollowness of their partisan rhetoric can be easily marked as nostalgia for a racist and sexist social order, the effects of government intervention in discussions of this country's history are horrifyingly real."

State Senator Carl Crabtree, one of the lawmakers behind HB 377, said he believed Idaho's students "should be taught how to think, not what to think."

He went on: "There are concerns that, in isolated instances, students have felt intimidated or coerced into certain ideologies. Every student deserves a learning environment where they can think freely and learn without prejudice.

"We want our students to learn about race in America without being led to predetermined conclusions. HB 377 does not prohibit the teaching or learning of any subject, it protects a student's right to formulate their own opinions and ideas."

Julianne Young, a Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, denied that the legislation banned any specific content.

Kimberlé Crenshaw speaks at NY women's foundation
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw speaks at the New York Women's Foundation's "Celebrating Women" event on May 10, 2018. Crenshaw has accused Republicans of “jaw-dropping” attacks on racial justice, freedom of speech and society’s understanding of its history. Monica Schipper/Getty Images for The New York Women's Foundation

She said: "Rather, it prohibits requiring a student to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to specific discriminatory beliefs, including the belief that a person is inherently inferior or superior because of their race."

However, the Idaho School Boards Association said the bill set "a concerning precedent."

Quinn Perry, policy and government affairs director of the association, said: "It has come on the tails of a wild misinformation campaign, where a radical lobbying group made broad claims that our members, administrators and teachers are 'indoctrinating' students—a claim we vehemently reject.

"Instead, the move delayed our public schools' ability to enter into professional negotiations, issue contracts, set budgets and prepare for learning loss programs for the upcoming school year. This also came at a time when teacher burnout and turn-over remain at an all-time high.

"When the [lobbying] group realized that bashing teachers, locally elected school boards and school administrators wasn't a well-received message, it appears they switched their rhetoric and started blaming our state agencies," Perry added.

Fred Cornforth, chairman of the Idaho Democrats, said in an emailed statement to Newsweek that 2021 was arguably the worst legislative session in the state's history.

"Instead of supporting families, teachers, students and hard-working Idahoans, radical legislators hope to inflame their base with conspiracy-backed legislation," he said.

"Within days of the initial claim of critical race theory being taught in Idaho schools [the] Republican-appointed State Board of Education has found zero evidence of these claims.

"Radical legislators continue their attack on public education—something they have underfunded for decades—to where our state is dead last in support per student, nationwide. Their claims are baseless and their actions, unconstitutional. A day of reckoning is coming at the ballot box."

This story has been updated to add a quote from Ian Haney López.