Voter Suppression for Adults, History Suppression for Kids

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Voter Suppression for Adults, History Suppression for Kids
© Caballero Reynolds / AFP / Getty; Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times / Getty; Getty; The Atlantic

The accelerating red-state offensive to censor what public-school students are taught about racism is emerging as a critical companion measure to proliferating race-based voter restrictions in many of the same states.

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The two-pronged fight captures how aggressively Republicans are moving to entrench their current advantages in red states, even as many areas grow significantly more racially and culturally diverse. Voting laws are intended to reconfigure the composition of today’s electorate; the teaching bans aim to shape the attitudes of tomorrow’s.

“This is the next wave of voters, so the indoctrination that we see occurring right now is planting the seeds for the control of that electorate as they become voters,” Janai Nelson, the associate director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told me recently. “They are trying to manipulate power and exert their influence at both ends of the spectrum by tilting those who can cast ballots now, and by indoctrinating those who can cast ballots later.”

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Proposals to limit how public K–12 schools—and even public colleges and universities—talk about race are exploding. They represent the latest battlefield between what I’ve called the Republican “coalition of restoration,” centered on the places and people most uneasy about the way America is changing, and the Democrats’ “coalition of transformation,” revolving around those most comfortable with these changes.

[Read: The GOP’s ‘critical race theory’ obsession]

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The bills are usually promoted as a response to “critical race theory,” but generally impose much broader prohibitions by barring educators from teaching that racism either has been or remains endemic in America. A law approved last year in Texas, for instance, prohibits schools from teaching that “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.”

In 2021, nine Republican-controlled states approved laws limiting the discussion of racism (and in many cases gender inequity), and four others imposed restrictions through the state’s board of education. This year, the pace “has clearly accelerated,” Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist at Acadia University, in Nova Scotia, told me. Of the 122 state bills that Sachs has tracked for PEN America, a free-speech organization, since January 2021, more than half have been introduced just in the past three weeks as state legislatures have reconvened for this year’s session. So many proposals are surfacing so fast that Sachs said his “gut instinct” is that all 23 states where Republicans control both the governorship and the state legislature eventually “will see a [censorship] bill passed.”

Like the restrictions on voting, these moves to limit the discussion of race in public educational institutions are being promoted by influential conservative groups such as Heritage Action for America. And like their companion laws, these measures are advancing through red states on a virtually complete party-line basis. Of the bills Sachs has cataloged, “every single one is exclusively sponsored by Republicans,” he said.

Experts agree that many schools are discussing issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation more explicitly than in the past, a trend that genuinely raises questions for some parents without a strong ideological agenda. But Ruthanne Buck, a senior adviser to the Campaign for Our Shared Future, a nonprofit group recently formed to fight the state restrictions, told me that conservatives pushing these bills have effectively performed a kind of bait and switch. With parents across the ideological and racial spectrum uniformly frustrated by the uncertainty and strains of schooling during the pandemic, she said, Republicans have successfully marketed their proposals as a way of amplifying parents’ voices. Yet the bills’ practical impact is very different. “You have a disconnect between what is being messaged by politicians as parental voice and what is being put into policy, which is actually just stripping schools of meaningful content and good practice,” she said.

Buck believes that more organized resistance to these classroom restrictions “is coming,” but so far the battle has been strikingly one-sided. Civil-rights groups haven’t invested in these fights in the states as heavily as they have in the battle against voting restrictions. President Joe Biden’s administration has not directly opposed or even spotlighted these red-state initiatives either. The only major congressional proposals around curriculum issues have come from Republicans who want to ban the use of federal money to fund the teaching of the same concepts on race and gender that the state GOP laws are targeting.

The school proposals are not only surfacing in more states, but also increasing in their breadth. More of this year’s measures, Sachs noted, target public colleges and universities rather than focusing solely on K–12 instruction. In several states, including Florida and Missouri, Republicans want to authorize parents, or sometimes any taxpayer, to bring private lawsuits against school districts that they believe are violating the new state limits on discussing racism. That system, which New Hampshire has already passed, closely resembles the recently signed Texas law authorizing private citizens to sue abortion providers, doctors, or anyone else who helps a woman obtain an abortion.

In another escalation, Florida is now considering a bill—dubbed by critics the “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” law—that would bar schools from discussing sexual orientation or gender identity (and authorize parents to sue districts that they believe are violating the restrictions). Demands are also growing in red states, most prominently Texas, to remove disputed books from school libraries, many of them reflecting the experiences of historically marginalized groups. (The 1619 Project, a national best seller from Nikole Hannah-Jones and The New York Times Magazine, has been a particular target of both legislators and book-banners.) A Tennessee school board drew national attention this week by voting unanimously to ban Maus, the Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel about Holocaust survivors.

On yet another front, Virginia’s newly elected Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin, told a conservative-talk-radio host this week that he was establishing a hotline where parents could report teachers they believe are violating his recent executive order constraining how schools discuss race. “We’re asking for folks to send us reports and observations,” Youngkin said, “and we’re going to make sure we catalog it all … And that gives us further, further ability to make sure we’re rooting it out.” Critics heard in his language an echo of the loyalty-oath requirements for teachers during the Red Scare of the 1950s. (The singer and activist John Legend previewed another response when he tweeted, “Black parents need to flood these tip lines with complaints about our history being silenced. We are parents too.”)

Like the new voting restrictions, the limits on classroom discussion of race are advancing against a backdrop of profound demographic change, especially in Sun Belt states.

[Read: The Democrats’ dead end on voting rights]

The 2020 census reported that kids of color for the first time constitute a majority of the population younger than 18. During the school year that ended in June, those nonwhite kids composed nearly 55 percent of all public school K–12 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics; the center’s projections show that the school year beginning this September will be the last in which white kids comprise a majority of the nation’s high-school graduates.

Few communities are completely exempt from this change. The nonwhite share of public-school students is generally largest in the big Sun Belt states, but NCES data show that kids of color already constitute a majority in 23 states. Even more dramatically, figures provided to me by the Equity Research Institute at the University of Southern California and PolicyLink, a group that studies racial-equity issues, show that kids of color represent the majority in 93 of the nation’s 100 largest school districts.

Yet even as the nation’s public-school student body tilts more heavily toward kids of color, the principal advocates of these laws almost everywhere have been conservative white parents and legislators. One measure of the imbalance is that the sponsors have promoted many of these restrictive bills by arguing that no classroom discussion of racism should cause any student to feel “discomfort” or “guilt” over their racial identity—a standard that implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) prioritizes the feelings of white students.

There’s been much less discussion about what suppressing talk of racism, gender inequity, or sexual orientation would mean for students and families whose experiences could now be marginalized or excluded. Manuel Pastor, a USC sociologist and director of the Equity Research Institute, told me that limiting discussion of societal discrimination encourages minority young people in low-income areas to see the poverty around them “as a personal failing rather than as part of a structural pattern.” That’s a dangerous message, he said: “I don’t think there’s any attention being paid to how disempowering, debilitating, and illusionary that whitewashing of the history of racism is” for nonwhite students and families. Minimizing racism in the long run, he added, is “also disorienting for white kids,” who must navigate “a very diverse society.”

Prentiss Haney, a co-executive director of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a group that organizes in Black and Latino communities across the state, told me that the most heated local disputes over race and the curriculum are arising in suburban communities that historically have been predominantly white but are now racially diversifying. (A nationwide study released this month by the Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access at UCLA supports his perception. It found that districts where the white share of students had significantly declined were more than three times as likely as districts with stable demographics to face public backlash over the teaching of race.)

In these changing places, Haney said, few Black or Latino parents complain that schools do too much to teach kids about historical or current racial inequities. For those parents, he said, the top priorities are providing more resources to schools and helping kids make up ground they lost during the pandemic. But the predominantly white critics focused on the curriculum, he said, carry more weight. “There is a long history of our public-school system disproportionately listening to the concerns of white parents … even while they are not the majority,” Haney told me.

The current wave of race-related proposals could become the most intrusive and expansive restrictions on classroom instruction since the spate of 1920s laws that banned the teaching of evolution. (Conservative states passed another spasm of laws mandating the teaching of “creation science” in the late ’70s and early ’80s.) Though approved statewide in only a few places, the 1920s bans were adopted by school districts in all areas of the country, notes Edward J. Larson, a professor of history and law at Pepperdine University.

The restrictions on teaching evolution emerged from the backlash against rapid social change after World War I that also generated, among other things, a virtually complete ban on immigration, the Palmer Raids against subversives, and Prohibition. “It was part of the angst connected with the Roaring ’20s,” Larson told me; his book Summer for the Gods is a classic history of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial,” which crystallized the battle over teaching evolution. “There was an anti-science aspect; there was a distrust of elites; there was an exhaustion from the war; there was a reaction against the seeming decadence of the [Great] Gatsby era.”

The conservative religious leaders pushing the evolution bans, mostly white evangelicals, had a two-sided agenda, Larson noted. Playing defense, they feared that teaching evolution would lure young people away from their faith; on offense, they thought that banning its teaching would mold the growing numbers of immigrant children into more reliable Americans (as they defined it). The schools “were being filled with immigrants’ kids,” and the religious conservatives pushing the bans felt, “‘We want to reach them … and we don’t want them to become Bolsheviks,’ which was a real worry,” Larson said.

At another moment of rapid cultural and demographic change, it’s easy to see the same dual goals in today’s red-state movement to limit discussion of racism. Though the measures have been promoted mostly as a defensive tool (to prevent white students from feeling guilty), many see in them an equally important offensive goal: discouraging the growing number of nonwhite students, as they reach voting age, from viewing systemic discrimination as a problem that public policy should address.

[Read: The Republican axis reversing the rights revolution]

Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told me that if the goal is “brainwashing kids of color,” these measures will ultimately fail because students can see evidence of economic and social inequity “in their daily lives.” But in states that impose these restrictions, he added, minority students will suffer because without guidance from teachers, they may “go through some tortured years” before they recognize how their own experiences are connected to America’s overall history of racial exclusion.

Both Saenz and Nelson, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund counsel, view one of these laws’ principal goals as discouraging kids of color precisely from making that connection. “They are trying to create a new generation of potential voters who have a warped view of this country’s history and are not informed about present-day inequities,” Nelson told me.

Seen through that lens, these educational constraints serve the same goal as the voting restrictions: deferring a shift in power, particularly across the Sun Belt, from the mostly white and nonurban Republican coalition that now controls these states toward a more diverse electorate generally more receptive to Democrats. “This is one of many different policy initiatives that are designed to try to delay that flip,” Saenz said. “They are doing everything they can: It’s voter suppression; it’s control [of] the curriculum. It’s all designed to keep the people currently in power in power longer, because they can see what’s coming.”

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