June 28, 2021

John Thompson: Lessons Under New CRT Laws

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John Thompson is a retired teacher and historian based on Oklahoma. He has submitted several pieces for this blog (a reminder that you, too, can submit content for this blog–just the use  npeblog@outlook.com). Here he looks at the growing “critical race theory” scrabble. 

Since I started this piece about a week ago, the issue has been growing more dangerous. I’d like to follow up with a post on the Washington Post’s front page story on Okla legislators and others minimizing the insurrection and criticizing the Murrah Building Memorial, as well as reports on the growing threats of violence due to the anti-CRT campaign.
Many Oklahoma rightwingers derided critical race theory (CRT) and then denied that HB 1775 banned it from schools; it supposedly just bans teaching that is “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.”  The Frontier is normally reliable, but its factchecking of the law noted that those three words (critical race theory) weren’t in the text of the law.  It concluded that “widespread media reports” that “HB 1775 bans the teaching of critical race theory in Oklahoma schools” are “Mostly false.”

And Gov. Kevin Stitt went so far as to declare that “no topic of our history or present inequalities are to be hidden from view.” So, let’s take them at their word. Let’s start drafting and sharing lessons that – according to such statements  – would be legal under the new law. A recent NPR Fresh Air program offered material for two such lessons.

The first lesson would draw upon Scott Borchert’s NPR discussion of his new book, Republic of Detours which is about “the amazing thing about the Federal Writers’ Project was just how much went right.” The lesson would include an analysis of rightwing attack by Rep Martin Dies on the program. It would culminate in a discussion of how the Dies Committee version of McCarthyism was similar or different from  Red, White, and Black, which Robert Pondiscio describes in the Fordham Institute’s blog as “a collection of essays published under the aegis of 1776 Unites, the ‘radically pragmatic and unapologetically patriotic’initiative launched last year by the Woodson Center.” Pondiscio notes that “the book’s aggressive subtitle” is “Rescuing American History from Revisionists and Race Hustlers.”

Students would start by describing and putting both the WPA project and critical race theory in a historical context. They could start with NPR’s description of the Federal Writers’ Project as “a New Deal initiative cooked up to get novelists, reporters, librarians, teachers and poets working during the Great Depression. On average, it employed 4,500 writers a month, many of them working on guidebooks for the then-48 states.” These writers included, Richard Wright, Zora Neale Hurston, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and John Cheever.

Borchert explains that the project was caught in a “tug of war between two visions of America,” which “has only intensified today.” For instance, only 106 of the writers were Black, but great Black writers worked in the New York City and Chicago offices.

Funding for the Writers Project was “slashed” In 1939, a year after it “was investigated as ‘un-American’ by a congressional committee led by the nativist Texas Rep. Martin Dies Jr. The committee claimed the American Guides offered ‘a splendid vehicle for the dissemination of class hatreds.’” After studying the Dies Committee, students would ask whether it paved the wave for McCarthyism, and then compare and contrast it with the Trump- and 1776 Unites-led attack on critical race theory.

Students could start this analysis of the main ideas and the roots of critical race theory, and then study the 1619 Project which was published in the New York Times Magazine. After writing a summary of their findings, students could read Pondiscio’s account of  “Robert L. Woodson, a career community activist and MacArthur “genius grant” recipient who founded 1776 Unites.” He cites Woodson’s belief that “As long as the perpetrators of race grievance that are represented by the 1619 Project are permitted to go unchallenged, this country will continue its social, spiritual, and moral decline.”

Since so many legislators who attack the 1619 Project acknowledge that they haven’t read what it said, surely they would welcome an opportunity to learn about the CRT by participating in such a lesson …

And, surely the advocates who claim that HR 1775 just “bans the teaching that one race is superior to another” would welcome a class discussion on whether it is a defense of our democracy from spiritual decline … And who would oppose a similar discussion about Martin Dies and Joe McCarthy, and whether they were defending or assaulting our constitutional democracy? Students could then compare and contrast the types of language used by Dies and McCarthy, and 1776 Unites.

Since there is a long history of Texas’ influence over school textbooks, Fresh Air’s  discussion of the new book, Forget the Alamo, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlison, and Jason Stanford, which challenges common misconceptions about the battle, offer a second lesson about the politicization of the media in 1960 and today. Burrough explained that John Wayne:

Made the movie basically because he wholeheartedly believed that America was falling apart, that it was going to the dogs and that somebody needs to stand up for what are today called “patriotic values,” “family values,” “American values.” And it’s also pretty clear … [Wayne] was ardently pro-Nixon in the 1960 presidential campaign and ardently anti-Kennedy and in his mind, believed that this type of huge shout-out of American patriot values could somehow defeat John F. Kennedy.

Because of the film and the falsehoods perpetuated in history classes, Burrough explains, Mexican-Americans are taught, “Your ancestors killed Davy Crockett, that that’s kind of the original sin of the Texas creation myth. It has been used just anecdotally for generations to put down Mexican Americans, a big beefy white guy going up to the little Mexican guy and punching him in the arm and saying, ‘Remember the Alamo.’”

In fact, Crockett was not “a martyr who fought to the death rather than surrender,” and “between a third and a half [of] the Texas defenders actually broke and ran. They ran out into the open where they were unceremoniously run down and killed by Mexican cavalry.”

Another important point that needs to be taught, Burrough says, is that “Slavery was the undeniable linchpin of all of this.” Since slavery “was the thing that the two sides had been arguing about and shooting about for going on 15 years, he adds, “it still surprises me that slavery went unexamined for so long.”

This new research would provide background information for a discussion about today’s arguments that critical race theory “is little more than reformulated Marxism,” and “equity is something like a kind of ‘social communism.’” That would link the class discussions back with the debate over McCarthyism, leading to more deep learning. Moreover, it would preview a discussion of how old and new forms of media inform/misinform and/or politicize public discussions.

Of course, these are just the lessons that were inspired by one Fresh Air program. If we all get to work and craft and share lessons, surely supporters of the Heritage Foundation’s and Trump’s attack on critical race theory will want to jump in. … Before long, we might have an entire curriculum that advances racial justice, as well as teachers who feel free to tackle such sensitive issues.

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