In their dangerous quest to control the American narrative, the GOP is attempting to criminalize any teaching in the classroom that can potentially hurt their white, Christian, cishet feelings.
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For years, conservatives have mocked liberals with taunts like “facts don’t care about your feelings,” and “look at those wimps who need safe spaces.” Yet here we are in 2022, where the most important item on the conservative legislative agenda across the U.S. is carving out a safe space at schools and universities where their feelings will never be hurt by inconvenient facts like racism isn’t dead and LGBT people exist.
The most high-profile crusade is the fight against “Critical Race Theory” (CRT), which conservatives insist is being taught in schools (it isn’t, unless you’re taking a graduate school–level sociology course). They claim that its purpose is to teach white students that they’re racist and to hate themselves, when in fact it’s quite the opposite: CRT is about how systems that developed over hundreds of years continue to create unequal outcomes today. Yet seven states have already passed bans on CRT, and another 16 have legislation in the pipeline to do so. Most of these bills are happening in the conservative strongholds of the deep South and mountain West, but even New Hampshire has passed such a law.
In reality, these bills have language so sweeping that virtually any discussion of the history of race in America becomes nearly impossible. This was the intention all along. Embedded in almost all of these bills (which appears to be based on model legislation produced by either ALEC or the Heritage Foundation) is language similar to what is found in Texas’s version. These laws force glaring inaccuracies to be taught about U.S. history. For instance, by the letter of the law, it would be illegal to note that it was almost exclusively white people enslaving Black people, because that’s “race stereotyping.”
These laws also state that it is illegal to teach that “the advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States or respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.”
This would forbid teachers from discussing how deeply embedded slavery was in American life and government. You couldn’t tell students that 41 out of 56 (73%) of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence were slave owners. Nor could you tell students almost half of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention owned slaves, or that four of the first five presidents of the United States were slaveowners.
Teachers are theoretically forbidden from describing the 3/5ths compromise, or why each state only gets two senators, because it might show how protecting the institution of slavery was baked into the Constitution from the start. Or if they do, they are required to portray these facts as irrelevant side notes for what the founding fathers REALLY meant (even though most of them owned slaves).
More sweeping than lies of omission is the broad and sweeping language designed to protect the delicate feelings of conservative white people. These anti-CRT laws dictate that teachers cannot say anything which might cause “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual ’s race or sex.”
The ultimate goal is to sanitize American history to conform to the way the GOP (which is 90% white) wants to think about history—namely, that slavery and Jim Crow were really bad, but everything is fine now. They want to believe that there’s no residual bias in the system, and that anything bad happening to Black people is entirely the fault of Black people. Racism exists, sure, but they’re just “isolated incidents” and not part of a larger problem. Republicans, and particularly their white evangelical base, believe that Black people just need to work harder, and that in (their) reality, racism against white people is a problem as big, or bigger than racism against Black people.
This need to codify the victimhood narrative has gone a step further in Oklahoma, where a bill has been introduced that would impose a $10,000 fine on anyone who taught something in a public school that contradicts someone’s religious beliefs. This is clearly a gag order on teaching evolution, but it also echoes the dominant white evangelical belief that Christians experience “a lot” of discrimination, while only a minority of evangelicals believe the same of Blacks, Muslims, LGBT people, etc. This would seem farcical should a student claim that their religion says 2+2=5, but in reality it’s the sort of legislation seen in right-wing authoritarian states like Russia, which criminalizes offending people’s religious beliefs (so long as they’re Russian Orthodox).
It would also mean you cannot teach an accurate version of American history. You couldn’t accurately teach about the role of religion in “Manifest Destiny,” which led to the slaughter of Native Americans. You couldn’t tell anyone about the role of the Bible in the uglier parts of US history, and particularly how Ephesians 6:5 (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.”) was used to justify slavery. It would absolutely ban the autobiographical book Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which described the role of religion in the South:
“The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus … He who sells my sister for purposes of prostitution, stands forth as the pious advocate of purity … I have seen him tie up a lame young woman, and whip her with a heavy cowskin upon her naked shoulders, causing the warm red blood to drip; and in justification of the bloody deed, he would quote this passage of scripture–’He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes.’”
Lost in most of this, though, is how the GOP has sought to erase the existence of LGBT students from schools, and particularly transgender ones. With book bans in school libraries happening across the U.S., the most frequent targets (by a wide margin) are books with LGBT content. Utterly inoffensive children’s stories, like Tango Makes Three or I Am Jazz, are treated as inherently offensive, or simply something children should never be exposed to until they’re 18.
In Florida, it looks as though the “Don’t Say Gay” bill will pass, and almost certainly never be able to be repealed due to gerrymandering. This law prohibits discussion of anything related to LGBT people in classrooms, even if there’s an openly LGBT student sitting right there. It also makes teachers and counselors mandatory reporters: If they believe a student is LGBT, they are legally required to report it to parents or potentially face criminal prosecution.
Again, this is driven by the conservative beliefs that facts, like the existence of a transgender student in their class, should never be allowed to cause them discomfort. The answer is to ban the books, ban the discussions, and make life for LGBT as dangerous and unpleasant as possible to “encourage” them to stay closeted, and thereby remove the source of the discomfort.
It’s a particularly nasty take on Mythbuster Adam Savage’s tagline: “I reject your reality and substitute my own!” But in this case, they’re rejecting the reality that LGBT people exist, and substituting their own wherein they either don’t exist or are invisible enough that they can comfortably pretend they don’t. This might sound like a stretch, but recently a Texas politician (who has been a substitute teacher) said the quiet part out loud when she declared during a campaign speech that, “I am not comfortable with the transgenders, the kids that they brought in my classroom, when they said this kid is transgendering into a different sex, that I couldn’t have kids laugh at them … other kids got in trouble for having transgender kids in my class.”
And it’s not just transgender students whose existence is offensive to conservatives: LGB people earn their ire as well. When an elementary student in Athens, GA, drew a picture of an umbrella with a rainbow over it and the words “Gay is OK,” the vice-principal of the school had it taken down. When an explanation was requested, he compared it to “displaying a swastika.” The message was the same as before: that LGBT people are inherently offensive, and we must make certain that the feelings of local white, Christian conservatives are not threatened by inconvenient facts, like the existence of LGB families or trans students.
All of these efforts to ban CRT, discussion of the role of religion in how bad things happened in American history, and the mere mention of LGBT people are part of the same effort to ensure white, Christian, cisgender, heterosexual students never have to confront the realities of our history or even where we live today. Nor would they ever confront the roles of people who looked like them in the past, such as the role of white Christians in slavery, lynchings, and Jim Crow. What the GOP wants is a sanitized version of history that requires zero introspection or empathy. They misperceive efforts to teach accurate history as attempts to make kids feel ashamed of who they are. This misses the point entirely.
In Germany, school curriculums address the horrors of the Holocaust head on. This isn’t to make German students whose great-grandparents lived through WWII feel ashamed of who they are, but to build a sense of empathy for the victims, and to recognize that they have the power, and responsibility, to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.
Meanwhile, back in the U.S., school boards are banning Maus, a graphic novel and first person account of the Holocaust, because (ostensibly) the cartoon mice are naked, and one of them says the word “damn.” In reality it’s because the book makes most sane people deeply uncomfortable (as it should), lays bare the banality of evil, and how people just like you can participate in it.
Instead we’re getting schools that teach history without appropriate context, erase LGBT people, and substitute first-hand accounts of the Holocaust with ahistorical fiction like The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, which allows readers to emotionally distance themselves from uncomfortable events. All to make sure that conservative feelings aren’t hurt, no matter what the impact on the rest of us is.
Is it any wonder people in other countries are looking at the U.S., and predicting an implosion?
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