Opinion: Love Justice And Climate Change. Danger In The Attack On Critical Race Theory


Salt marsh in Wellfleet, Massachusetts. Photo: Russ Vernon-Jones

Russ Vernon-Jones

Conservatives in the U.S. have been attacking Critical Race Theory (CRT), or what they think is Critical Race Theory, everywhere from angry school board meetings to the halls of Congress. The progressive press has been deriding these critics for not knowing what CRT is, but these attacks, which are not really about CRT, are widespread and dangerous. They go to the heart of our country’s relationship to racism, threatens efforts toward racial justice, and fundamentally seek to interfere at all levels with teaching an honest account of our history.

Educators Targeted
Terry Harris, the executive director of student services in the Rockwood school district in Missouri was the target of a social media campaign calling him “the most racist guy toward white people you’ll ever meet” and proclaiming “he has to be the one that goes first.” Apparently he is being targeted  because he has worked with others to ensure that the schools in his district teach a more diverse curriculum, emphasizing equity, and thinks “we have to talk about the fact that race and racism is real, and is [part] of the fabric of America….”

A veteran of 21 years of teaching 3rd grade in Derry, New Hampshire, Misty Compton, who had won an exceptional teacher award, was attacked on postcards mailed to voters in a school board election (in which she was not even a candidate). She was studying stories of successes in making schools more equitable from around the county, but was charged with “training to change our social studies curriculum to teach Critical Race Theory (Marxist ideology) in our schools.”

Nick Covington, an 11th grade social studies teacher in a small city north of Des Moines, Iowa, has been showing a news report from the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally as part of his AP history unit on nationalism in Europe for three years without incident. This year parents have organized against him demanding that he be sanctioned. School administrators have ordered him to stop talking about current events. (

Terry Harris is Black; Compton and Covington are White. I found their stories and the above quotes in Time magazine (July 5, 2021) and The Nation (June 28, 2021), respectively.

Prohibitions Enacted
Republicans are arguing that teachers are “teaching kids to hate their country.” Idaho, Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Texas have all enacted laws in the last few weeks restricting how history may be taught in their schools. Montana and Florida have imposed new restrictions. The Iowa law forbids teaching about systemic racism; others prohibit teaching that racism is embedded in our history. Actions designed to limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism have been proposed or implemented in at least 25 states according to Education WeekAdvocates in Nevada have called for teachers to be required to wear body cameras. A bill proposed in Arizona would fine teachers $5,000 if their teaching caused students to feel “guilt” over their race.

There is a long history of culture wars over what gets taught in schools. What is different this time, according to many observers, is Donald Trump. Trump seized on this issue toward the end of his last presidential campaign in an effort to win votes. Since the election he, his supporters, and other conservative advocates have intensified a campaign to make CRT and how schools deal with issues of race a divisive electoral issue from local school boards to national politics. Critical Race Theory is a decades-old legal theory that examines how slavery’s legacy continues to influence society in the U.S. It is actually only taught in some graduate University courses.

Not Spontaneous
The attack on CRT did not arise out of nowhere. The Heritage Foundation, a longtime developer of conservative campaigns, devised a two-part strategy: limit access to voting by people of color, and attack all progressive anti-racism efforts. One of its agents, Christopher Rufo, has been actively portraying Critical Race Theory as a neo-Marxist plot by progressives that is taking over the county. Rufo has been rather open in his tweets that he doesn’t care what CRT really is. He has associated it with any attention to race or racism, social justice, or inequality, and vilified it as a threat in a way that is similar to the way earlier conservatives portrayed everything their opponents advocated as “socialist” or “communist.” 

His message to conservative audiences is basically if it has anything to do with “race” or “justice”, then it’s probably part of CRT, which they must unite to oppose at every turn–in schools, workplaces, and government offices–in order to preserve the (white) America they love. From March to July 2021 Fox News has mentioned CRT nearly 2,000 times–firing up its viewers to find CRT everywhere and root it out. The goal of Rufo and others is to make race and racism forbidden topics and to use the attack on CRT to unite voters behind Trump-supporting candidates. 

They also oppose teaching any topic in schools that makes any student feel uncomfortable and any topic that is “divisive” (such as racism, sexism, or climate change). This becomes a way to excuse white people from any responsibility to face or address any of the effects of racism, such as racial inequities in wealth, education, incarceration, health, etc. They argue that teaching about race and racism is teaching children to hate America or to feel guilty about being white.

Manipulating Feelings Of Racial Resentment
This campaign opposing CRT is full of lies, distortions, false associations, and manipulation of people’s upset feelings. It is a cynical attempt to exploit racial differences to gain political power. At the same time, we must acknowledge that genuine academic Critical Race Theory has played a role in revealing the systemic nature of racism and how it is embedded in our history and institutions. These understandings are part of progressive efforts to dismantle white supremacy and systemic racism. The attack on CRT, of course, is not an honest attempt to debate the nature of racism in the U.S. It is a manipulation of white people’s upsets about people of color, long fostered by the right wing, to try make it impossible to even talk about race, much less work toward racial equity.

What Is It Really About?
It is important that we understand that this is not really about Critical Race Theory. This is about the right wing finding a way to stir up white people’s resentments about race as a way of winning elections and making the history of racism and current racial inequities forbidden topics. Being able to address racism and deal with it openly is critical to building a just, inclusive society and, as I’ve written in previous posts, to solving the climate crisis. This attack on teachers, schools, and workplace trainings can have disastrous effects if we don’t succeed in standing against it.

Back in September 2020 a poll in which respondents were asked “whether they supported ‘anti-racist education’ as a policy to reduce and prevent hate and extremism … seven in 10 adults nationally (70 percent) said they support such a program, compared to only one in six (18 percent) who oppose it.” Whether that poll would get the same results after months of conservatives being bombarded by the attack on “critical race theory”, is unclear. Regardless, we have many allies as we insist that understanding and dismantling racism must be part of our public conversation and our public schools.

Russ Vernon-Jones was the Principal of Fort River Elementary School from 1990 to 2008. He is a co-facilitator of the Coming Together Anti-Racism Project in the Amherst area. He chairs the Racism, White Supremacy, and Climate Justice working group of Climate Action Now of Western Mass., and blogs regularly on climate justice at www.RussVernonJones.org.

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