The Misguided Argument Against Bans on Teaching Critical Race Theory | Opinion

A good rule of thumb for evaluating political debates: If the strongest argument from the sharpest writers in the most prestigious newspaper op-ed page is predicated on a claim that takes 30 seconds to fact-check as false, then that side probably has the weaker case.

Hence, a recent New York Times op-ed by Dispatch Senior Editor David French, Harper's columnist Thomas Chatterton Williams, Yale professor Jason Stanley and podcaster Kmele Foster provides perhaps the best evidence to date in favor of state laws "banning" critical race theory (CRT) in public schools.

This was, of course, not their intent. As a "progressive, a moderate, a libertarian and a conservative," they write, "we are united in one overarching concern: the danger posed by these [anti-CRT] laws to liberal education."

The danger, they claim, is that states are censoring curricula that make students uncomfortable. They write: "Tennessee House Bill SB 0623 [sic], for example, bans any teaching that could lead an individual to 'feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex.'" Legislative proposals in other states, they say, "differ in some respects but generally agree on blocking any teaching that would lead students to feel discomfort, guilt or anguish because of one's race or ancestry."

Such a heavy-handed statutory injunction would indeed be profoundly intellectually oppressive. The authors argue, correctly, that "[a]ny accurate teaching of any country's history could make some of its citizens feel uncomfortable (or even guilty) about the past." (Emphasis in original.)

Good thing, then, the Tennessee law doesn't actually say that. Rather, it reads: "This amendment also prohibits any [school district] from including or promoting the following concepts as part of a course of instruction ... : ... (6) An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual's race or sex."

French et. al omitted the crucial words "an individual should" and then assigned an entirely foreign meaning to the statute they attacked. The Tennessee bill simply does not say what they claim: that schools may not teach lessons that make students feel uncomfortable. It says that schools may not teach lessons that include or promote the concept that students should feel uncomfortable simply due to their race. It would not prohibit teaching about Jim Crow just because some white kids might feel bad after learning undisputed facts. It would prohibit teaching Robin DiAngelo, or similar authors, who make the racist and demoralizing argument that "white identity is inherently racist."

These four co-authors make their living, in large part, through the written word. Why direct the central argument of a New York Times op-ed against a transparent straw man of their own construction?

The sign on the west side of
The sign on the west side of the New York Times building at 620 Eighth Ave. April 28, 2016 in New York City. DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

Perhaps because it is so difficult to oppose "CRT bans" forthrightly. Most of the common clauses in these laws prohibit the kind of state-sponsored racism that parents instinctively know has no place in schools: teaching students that "one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex," that "an individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously," or "ascribing character traits, values, moral or ethical codes, privileges or beliefs to a race or sex or to an individual because of the individual's race or sex."

These laws would prohibit schools from emulating Illinois' Evanston/Skokie school district, which taught that "whiteness is a bad deal," that white students should consider "what it means to be white but not [be] a part of whiteness" and where CRT-inspired educators routinely insist that it is their mission to disrupt and dismantle "whiteness."

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine that in rural areas of blue states, public schools started teaching that "blackness is a bad deal," that black students should consider "what it means to be black but not [be] a part of blackness" and educators started to insist that it is their mission to disrupt and dismantle "blackness."

It is possible that if blue states decided to bulk up their civil rights laws to prohibit this, these four authors would have decried the effort in print as "antithetical to educating students in the culture of American free expression." Perhaps they really would have argued that in a decent liberal society, teachers must be free to openly denigrate minority students. If so, then their recent stand in the Times was taken with principled intellectual integrity (albeit with dubious morality).

But for anyone who would not also take that unpopular stance, then the true argument against "CRT bans" becomes: White students and teachers uniquely do not deserve legal protection from a racially hostile learning environment.

This appears to be the position of the Biden Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR). In January 2021, OCR determined that the Evanston/Skokie school district violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act when it separated students and staff by race, publicly shamed students based on their race and told teachers to take student race into account in discipline.

But after President Biden issued his executive order on "racial equity," OCR took the nearly unprecedented step of suspending its own decision. No one should believe the decision would have been suspended if minority students were the ones being targeted. The simplest explanation: The federal government does not intend to enforce civil rights laws when white students or teachers are victimized.

This is what makes these "CRT bans" so necessary. In the 1960s, it became undeniable that some states wouldn't apply 14th Amendment protections to all citizens, so Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Today, it has become apparent that the federal government is not equally and consistently enforcing the Civil Rights Act. It is, therefore, up to the states to step up to protect students from discrimination and racially hostile environments.

Some proposed or passed bills are better than others. There is certainly room for constructive criticism. But most arguments against these proposals are predicated on plain and quite possibly willful misrepresentations—perhaps because honest attacks against them are so difficult to make.

Max Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.