June 23, 2021

Gillian Frank and Adam Laats: This Critical Race Theory Panic Is a Chip Off the Old Block

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At Slate, Gillian Frank and Adam Laats take us a few decades back in history to remind us that we’ve seen this level of right-wing panic before.

By the 1970s, backlash against supposedly progressive curriculums had ossified into predictable outcries about unpatriotic content, which often meant targeting material that dignified Black voices. Even if conservative complaints were rote, their activism was literally explosive. In Kanawha County, West Virginia, in 1974, white parents reacted with violent rage to false rumors about the contents of popular textbooks. In this case, a new series of English language arts textbooks had been approved by the state. One school board member, Alice Moore, warned that the books were full of anti-Christian, anti-American, anti-white propaganda and indoctrination.

These warnings stoked a fire that had been smoldering for decades. For weeks at the start of the 1974–75 school year, outraged parents boycotted the schools and their “dirty books.” Protesters shot and vandalized school buses. They threw firebombs into empty school buildings. They exploded a dynamite bomb at the school district headquarters. Their fury, once again, was only loosely connected to reality. In this case, protesters had circulated flyers at the picket lines, warning that the books were sexually graphic. Opponents also objected to the inclusion of excerpts of work by Black authors such as Eldridge Cleaver and George Jackson. By doing so, the textbooks—one conservative parent told a school board meeting—reduced the English language to “the language of the ghetto.”

Outraged white parents took to the streets to defend their children from exposure to such words and ideas. The supposed excerpts about sex were nowhere to be found in the actual textbooks under review. Still, protest leaders such as Alice Moore defended their opposition to Black authors. They were tired—as Moore said—of being called “racist” merely for “insist[ing] on the traditional teaching of English.” When it came to conservative outrage, the actual content of the books did not matter. As one boycott leader explained, “You don’t have to read the textbooks. If you’ve read anything that the radicals have been putting out in the last few years, that was what was in the textbooks.”

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