Leave our schools alone
A response to Rep. Matt Leber, in defense of critical race theory (and ‘critical race theory’)
Last Thursday morning, I was drinking my coffee and musing on Twitter about the ever-burning garbage fire of South Carolina politics when I somehow got the attention of Rep. Matt Leber, a conservative state lawmaker from the Charleston area.
Long story short, I asked him to stop co-sponsoring bills that would censor teachers, and he accused me of not having read his bills. I am deeply familiar with his bills and their context, and I told him I’d write him an essay explaining my objections. You can read that essay below.
The specific bill that Rep. Leber asked me to critique is House Bill 3464, an ostensible ban on “critical race theory” in schools that’s more or less interchangeable with the teacher gag orders on “CRT” and “divisive concepts” that have been introduced by Republicans in 44 states since January 2021.
It’s not one of the higher-profile censorship bills that’s been wasting our time in the South Carolina Statehouse this year, but since it’s the one we were discussing, I’ll address it here today. I think similar arguments could apply to the other bills of this genre. If you’re reading this newsletter and you’d like to stay up to date on the other attacks on academic freedom in South Carolina, check out the Resources page at protruthsc.org and join the Freedom to Read SC coalition via this email signup.
In our discussion of South Carolina House Bill 3464 last week, you asked me to respond with specific critiques on “the meat of the bill,” which purports to be a definition of critical race theory.
First I'd like to give a spirited defense of critical race theory, the actual academic and legal framework, which is different from what you and your cosponsors have written in the bill. You don’t need to worry about it showing up in elementary schools; as many people have no doubt told you already, it’s a graduate-level concept taught in law school. But since your counterparts in states like Florida have already begun purging critical race theory from institutions of higher education, I’m going to speak in defense of CRT first, then move on to the matter of K-12 schools.
According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (whose longtime school desegregation counsel Derrick Bell helped establish critical race theory), critical race theory is "an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society — from education and housing to employment and healthcare." Scholars developed this framework in the 1970s and 1980s to investigate why, after the legal victories of the Civil Rights movement, massive inequality persisted along racial lines.
CRT can help us understand why, for example, South Carolina continues to maintain de-facto segregated schools and provide a level of education funding to poor, rural, & majority-Black schools that falls below our state’s low bar for “minimally adequate” education.
CRT can help us understand why, under the ostensibly “colorblind” rule of law in South Carolina, the following facts are true:
Black residents make up nearly 27% of our population but just 6% of the student body at Clemson University and 9% of the student body at USC-Columbia.
South Carolina imprisons a larger portion of its population than any country on earth, with 1 in 50 Black residents behind bars.
Of the people executed by the state of South Carolina since 1912, 74% have been Black.
A common refrain I’ve heard all my life in South Carolina is that racism is a problem of the heart. This is true, but it’s an incomplete analysis. The history of our state has been shaped and marred by the actions of individual racists (John C. Calhoun, “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, Coleman Blease, Solomon Blatt Sr., and Dylann Roof, to name a few) and likely is today, too — as the Good Book says, who can know another person’s heart? — but the mere fact of racist individual actors in our history does not explain our current state of affairs.
We don’t simply have more racists per capita here; we have structural impediments to equality that need to be dismantled. To understand how we got here, we need to understand how, as Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw wrote in 1989, “the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism.”1 We need to consider one of the basic tenets of critical race theory, that “racism is ordinary, not aberrational,”2 and turn our attention to the root causes of our racist status quo.
The meat of the bill
I think you are smart enough to recognize the sleight of hand practiced by your party when it slaps the label “critical race theory” on classroom instruction and teacher training that deal with racism and inequality. There is a reason why a decades-old, graduate-level academic framework was plucked out of obscurity to become the subject of dozens of censorship bills across the country in the last two years.
Christopher Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, who started stirring the pot about “critical race theory” in Fox News interviews in 2019, has stated publicly that his goal is “to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’” It’s not a subtle playbook. It borrows heavily from the McCarthyites of the last century who labeled wrongthink in schools, media, and public institutions as evidence of “communist infiltration.”
I would like to turn now to, as you say, “the meat of the bill,” and raise my objections to it. Here is the section you highlighted, which purports to be the definition of “critical race theory,” which students must not be compelled to affirm:
(B) For purposes of this chapter, "critical race theory" means any of the following tenets:
(1) any sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin is inherently superior or inferior;
(2) individuals should be adversely treated on the basis of their sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin; or
(3) individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.
As we’ve established, this has little to do with critical race theory as espoused by the actual scholars who created it. It instead appears to be a willful misreading of self-help books on personal racial bias, such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.
In regards to sections (B)(1) and (B)(2), if the purpose of a bill like H. 3464 is to prohibit teachers from teaching racist concepts in the classroom, then it’s redundant. In a similar vein, you wouldn’t need to write a state law stating that teachers must show up to work on time. Matters of teacher employment and discipline are properly delegated to the local school districts, and if a teacher were to engage in racist speech in the classroom (just as if they were habitually late to work), that teacher could be disciplined or fired under the authority of any district’s own policies.
Instead, what your bill would do is reshape the working definition of racism in a way that is aligned with the sensibilities of white parents.
“But Paul!” you may say, “where in my bill does it say the word ‘white?’”
I’ll turn your attention to section (B)(3): “individuals, by virtue of sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin, are inherently responsible for actions committed in the past by other members of the same sex, race, ethnicity, religion, color, or national origin.”
Is this clause about the collective responsibility of Black South Carolinians for the actions of their ancestors? Of Latine South Carolinians? Of Asian-American South Carolinians?
I recognize the reflexive defensiveness and anxiety in this clause because I have felt it myself. As a young white Christian conservative growing up in Summerville, I was occasionally confronted with the grotesqueness of what white Christian conservatives had done throughout our history and felt like I was being unfairly painted with the broad brush of history. I didn’t enslave anybody; I didn’t attack Black voters or fight the integration of my school district; why should I feel guilt or compunction about things that happened before I was born?
In time I came to realize that nobody was asking me to feel guilty, or even to take responsibility for the actions of my ancestors. Instead, I realized that we all share the opportunity — should we choose to embrace it — to right the wrongs we inherited. For those of us who benefit from the current wicked state of affairs, we may have to overcome some amount of self-interest to do so, but our individual feelings of guilt or defensiveness serve only to reinforce the status quo.
What you are doing to our schools
So far we’ve been talking in the abstract about legal and academic theories. I would like to provide a concrete explanation of what your bill, and the slate of bills like it, are doing to our schools right now.
Your bill’s 3-part definition of critical race theory is a condensed paraphrase of the 8-part definition of “partisanship curriculum” that Republicans have inserted into state budget provisos for the last two years. That piece of legislation-by-proviso, combined with ex-Superintendent Molly Spearman’s vague prohibition on “critical race theory” in 2021, has led to one of the sillier but more consequential witch hunts in our state this century.
Teachers, administrators, and school librarians have been singled out by community members, had their jobs threatened, and been subject to harassment because they sent out Social Emotional Learning surveys; because they took training seminars on “Teaching for Equity;” because they took or administered the Harvard Implicit Association Test; because they signed the Zinn Education Project Pledge to Teach the Truth; and because they implemented Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, a disciplinary model that has been used in schools since the 1980s.
Local school districts have passed their own bans on “critical race theory” using definitions provided by right-wing thinktanks, groups like S.C. Parents Involved in Education have held workshops on identifying and “eradicating” CRT by spying on teachers, and book bans are on the rise again. We are getting far afield from critical race theory, but because of the willful miscategorization committed by Republicans in our legislature and state Department of Education, all of these supposed offenses are placed under the umbrella of “CRT.”
State lawmakers and education officials are targeting teachers for doing their jobs, and they’re doing it at a time when we can’t afford to chase more teachers away. As of November, South Carolina schools reported 1,474 unfilled K-12 educator jobs, the highest number of vacancies ever recorded.
I have lost track of the number of friends and family members who quit the teaching profession in South Carolina in the past decade. What once was a respectable and sustainable career path has become an underpaid dead-end job, where teachers must navigate a minefield of legal chicanery and the hurt feelings of conservatives. I encourage you to read the words of teachers who couldn’t take it any longer:
I wrote you this letter because what you are doing threatens my family. I am a father of three children in South Carolina public schools, which have been subject to decades of neglect, abuse, and de-funding. My children have excellent teachers who keep showing up to work despite the adverse conditions you and your colleagues have created.
Last night I sat through a 5-hour school board meeting here in Charleston County, and last week I drove downtown to speak at a meeting of the same board, because your witch hunt has arrived in our backyard.
Your colleagues in the so-called Freedom Caucus sued my family’s school district in November alleging that the EL (Expeditionary Learning) literacy curriculum was smuggling “liberal indoctrination” and “critical race theory” into elementary schools, in supposed violation of the “partisanship curriculum” proviso that your bill seeks to make permanent law. As evidence, they held up a sub-Project-Veritas-quality doctored sting video that they sent to Fox News to fuel the national outrage cycle.
This is patent nonsense, but it is consequential nonsense. A 5-member majority of board members backed by the billionaire activist group Moms for Liberty tried to eliminate the EL curriculum in meetings over the past week despite its track record of success across the country; despite its showing strong results particularly for minority students in Charleston County pilot schools; and despite an overwhelming outpouring of support from teachers, administrators, literacy coaches, parents, and even 5th-grade students who pleaded with them to keep it.
“If you take this curriculum away, I question what is really important for our school board,” one elementary school teacher said last night. “Will you give in and change plans every time a particular group is offended?”
We held those easily offended board members at bay for now. Their motion failed 3-6 in committee, in part because they failed to realize the school board doesn’t get to pick curricula in Charleston County. We’ll have to fight them again one day when they get their act together. In the meantime, I am appealing to you, as I did on Twitter last week, to stop censoring teachers and prohibiting open discussion of American history in public schools.
I hesitated to write you this letter, Rep. Leber, because I don’t know if you asked my opinion in good faith. I am a democratic socialist; you are a Republican on the far conservative side of your party. What common ground could we have for rational discourse?
I don’t want to spend my time arguing with you. My children’s school has had plumbing problems all week that spewed toilet water into the halls, our district is bleeding employees at a rate that constitutes an existential threat, and frankly I have my hands full most days just working my job and raising my kids.
I took the time to write because I take your attacks on public school teachers personally. In the name of liberty, I ask you politely for now: Leave our schools alone.
Brutal South is a free weekly newsletter about class struggle and education in the American South. If you would like to support my work and get access to the complete archive of subscriber-only stuff, paid subscriptions are $5 a month.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. "Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics," University of Chicago Legal Forum: Vol. 1989: Iss. 1, Article 8. Available at: http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, Second Edition. NYU Press, 2012. Chapter 1 available at: https://jordaninstituteforfamilies.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Delgado_and_Stefancic_on_Critical_Race_Theory.pdf