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  September 2021

Backlash Against Mass Protests of Racist Police Murder

Mobilize to Fight Racist
“Anti-CRT” Gag Laws!

They Want to Force You to Stop Teaching About Racism

In the summer of 2020, reacting to the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, millions took to the streets to denounce racist police brutality. The campaign against “critical race theory,” initiated by Donald Trump, is a racist backlash against those protests. Above: mass meeting called by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in Oakland, California on 19 June 2020. On Juneteenth (the celebration of the end of slavery), the ILWU shut down all ports on the U.S. West Coast to protest police terror and systemic racism. (Internationalist photo)

By Class Struggle Education Workers

As the 2020-21 school year drew to a close, there was an explosion of laws and regulations restricting how teachers could discuss racism, sexism and other controversial issues in class. By now, some 28 states – all with Republican-controlled legislatures and/or Republican governors – have introduced bills (more than a dozen of which have been enacted) or issued state education department rulings that would outlaw teaching “divisive concepts.” Concepts prohibited from “a course of instruction” include that the United States is a racist country (Tennessee Dept. of Ed.), that racism is embedded in American society and its legal system (Florida Board of Ed.), or even discussing anything that would cause anyone to “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex” (Georgia Board of Ed.).

In a round-up article on this wave of racist gag laws, Education Week (19 July) summarized: “Republicans proposing bills like this say that teachers who discuss these topics – who suggest, for example, that Black Americans are systemically oppressed – are practicing ‘critical race theory’.” “CRT” has become the bugbear of conservatives, setting set off a new round of “culture wars” in the schools. In fact, the anti-“CRT” campaign has nothing to do with Critical Race Theory, which is a sub-discipline of academic/legal studies and is not taught in secondary schools. Rather, the reactionary proponents of these laws seek to prevent teachers from taking up discussion of “systemic racism” in response to the massive nationwide protests sparked by the racist police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May 2020. In targeting “CRT,” they are trying to keep any mention of “BLM” (Black Lives Matter) out of the schools.

What is CRT? See accompanying article on “Revolutionary Integrationism vs. ‘Critical Race Theory’

The current all-sided attack on “CRT” is a racist backlash on the cultural front, akin to the mobilizing-propaganda campaigns of the White Citizens’ Councils in the 1960s. The summer 2020 protests had a profound cultural effect, and the racists perceived they had lost ground. Racist cops were captured on video committing murder, monuments of the Confederacy were under physical attack across the country, people were talking about the Tulsa massacre, there were TV shows about Juneteenth, high school and middle school classes were talking about slavery and Jim Crow, and so on. It’s not Critical Race Theory they want to ward off, it’s slavery they don’t want discussed, and Jim Crow segregation, and racist cop terror today. Chris Rufo of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, spelled out the strategy of making “CRT” a toxic buzzword to give cover this racist reaction in a March tweet:

“We have successfully frozen their brand – “critical race theory” – into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”

This was the clear purpose of Republican president Donald Trump when he issued Executive Order 13950 last September 22, which is where the language in the state laws and regulations comes from. In banning racial “diversity training” and promoting “unity” (!), the order denounced “offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.” It listed nine “divisive concepts” that must be rooted out, including (in addition to those cited above) “meritocracy or traits such as a hard work ethic are racist or sexist.” The Executive Order was repealed by Democratic president Joe Biden within hours of taking office on January 20. But Trump Republicans are hellbent on upholding the ex-president’s overtly racist legacy, while Biden Democrats hide behind the (not very) covert racism of “supporting the police.”

So in Georgia, Republican governor Brian Kemp’s appointed state Board of Education unanimously resolved that “the United States of America is not a racist country, and that the state of Georgia is not a racist state” – and for a teacher to say any different is henceforth illegal. Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Montana, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas have already passed laws or issued state education department regulations or executive orders banning “CRT.” In other states, bills are pending which will set off fireworks in upcoming elections. The vagueness of the various laws and regulations is deliberate. The point is to keep this contentious issue alive until the next presidential election – in other words: it’s all about “Trump 2024.”

This raises the spectre of McCarthyite repression in the schools. At the dawn of the anti-Soviet Cold War in the late 1940s and early ’50s, right-wing Republican senator Joe McCarthy – with the connivance of Democratic liberals – launched witch hunts to ferret out “reds” from the government, schools, wherever. State laws were passed to fire any teacher deemed a “Communist.” Hundreds of teachers were purged from New York City schools alone. Today’s witch-hunting regulations list all kinds of dire consequences if they are violated. In Arizona, school districts will be fined $5,000 and teachers could lose their licenses. In Tennessee also, a teacher could have their certification revoked, while funds could be massively stripped (up to $5 million, or 10% of all state aid) from any school or district that “knowingly” violates the anti-“CRT” law after a state education department investigation of parent complaints.

Now the anti-“CRT” crusade is linking up with anti-transgender, anti-vaccine and anti-masking hysteria to create an all-round toxic environment at the opening of school this fall (“Venom of Political and Culture Battles Seeps Into School Halls,” New York Times, 20 August). It will intersect massive learning deficits suffered by students after what has been a lost year for millions due to pandemic shutdowns and the disaster of “remote education,” particularly for the most disadvantaged students. Already there are a slew of recall campaigns by racist right-wingers against school administrators and school board members (61 at last count, against 157 officials, more than double the average over the last decade). And given the explosiveness of these multiple issues, there could be clashes with rabid reactionaries at some of the hottest spots.

Tennessee: From the Scopes Trial to “CRT”

In Tennessee, “prohibited concepts” also include “Promoting or advocating the violent overthrow of the United States government”; “promoting division between, or resentment of, a race, sex, religion, creed, nonviolent political affiliation, social class, or class of people”; or saying that the “rule of law” is a “series of power relationships and struggles among racial or other groups.” It’s not surprising that Tennessee has one of the more draconian laws. This was the battleground over the teaching of evolution, going back to the infamous 1925 trial of science teacher John Scopes, accused of violating the state’s Butler Act that made it illegal to teach human evolution in public schools. Amid the uproar (the trial was broadcast on nationwide radio), the fascist terrorists of the Ku Klux Klan embraced the anti-evolution cause.

It’s no accident that the nightriders and cross-burners of the KKK denounced evolution, as did the Southern Baptist Convention religious denomination that was founded in 1845 to support slavery. Hard-core racists want to deny that all humans are of African descent.1 The ideological continuity of this racist reaction extended into the 1960s and beyond with the push for including anti-scientific, Christian fundamentalist “creationism” and “intelligent design” as “alternatives” to evolution in school curricula. This was a direct reaction to the civil rights movement and school integration. And it continues today with the campaign to ban any education about the roots of racism. All are a reflection of the fact that the Civil War left unfinished the struggle to root out the social and economic power of the slavocracy: racial oppression and the racist ideology it generates are woven into the fabric of American capitalism.

At the same time, resistance to ingrained racism has been growing as the country grows more diverse. In 2009, the Southern Baptist Convention formally apologized for its support to slavery and failure to support the civil rights movement in the 1960s. This year it voted down a right-wing anti-“CRT” candidate for president and beat back a resolution against “critical race theory” – while rejecting any view that sees racism rooted in “anything other than sin” (AP 16 June).

Recently a Tennessee teacher, Matthew Hawn, was dismissed by the Sullivan County Board of Education for leading classroom discussions on anti-racist issues. Hawn, a contemporary issues teacher and baseball coach, was charged with not presenting “varying viewpoints” (the pro-racist side?!) and for assigning “inappropriate materials,” including a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay which a parent complained presented Donald Trump in a negative light (, 8 June). Matthew Hawn has appealed his dismissal. Defenders of public education everywhere should demand that he be reinstated.

Right-Wing Frenzy Against “Critical Race Theory”

Lily-white crowd of parents swarm school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia, on June 22, protesting "critical race theory" and policies respecting transgender students. Loudoun was one of the last segregationist holdouts, not desegregating its schools until 1968, 14 years after Supreme Court Brown v. Board of Education ruling declared separate schools unconstitutional. Anti-"CRT" protests are the new "massive resistance" to racial equality. For mass mobilization to defeat this racist attack on public education!  (Photo: Reuters)

The striking similarities between the various anti-“CRT” laws, and their sly use of liberal anti-discrimination terminology to prevent discussion of racism, come from the fact that they are based on model bills cooked up by right-wing think tanks. The “Partisanship Out of Civics Act” was drawn up by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, an ultra-rightist outfit founded by Ernest Lefever, a supporter of the racist pseudoscience propaganda of William Shockley.2 This cookie-cutter legislation was concocted by one Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the center and Harvard faculty member. Outlawing discussion that could cause a student “discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex” was a conscious effort to craft the laws in such a way that they could be used by parents to go after individual teachers.

Other model bills banning discussion of systemic racism come from the Heritage Foundation, Citizens for Renewing America, the Alliance for Free Citizens and the David Horowitz Freedom Center, an anti-Muslim foundation. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a linchpin of the longstanding corporate/right-wing offensive to take over state governments, held a workshop in December, attended by 20 state legislators and led by anti-“CRT” propagandist Chris Rufo of the conservative Manhattan Institute.3 ALEC, set up after the 1964 defeat of the presidential bid by Barry Goldwater, specializes in writing model state laws for repression of immigrants (Arizona), “stand your ground” laws legalizing vigilantism, and “parent trigger” laws to force school districts to permit charter schools (California and Connecticut).

The anti-“CRT” laws and orders are being pushed by right-wing groups that have sprung up over the last year. One group, No Left Turn in Education, which boasts of 30 chapters in 24 states, was founded in June 2020, explicitly in response to the mass protests against racist police murder, which led to more teaching in schools about the roots of racism. NBC News (15 June) listed “at least 165 local and national groups that aim to disrupt lessons on race and gender.” In New Hampshire, the campaign against education about racism has seen fascists such as the Proud Boys, and Nazis of the “NSC 131” (Nationalist Social Club Anti-Communist Action), demonstrate outside the Nashua Board of Education with a banner saying “CRT = Anti-White.” These Nazis also staged anti-Semitic protests outside the Holocaust Museum in Boston in May.

Although billed as a rejection of “critical race theory,” the witch-hunting gag laws are aimed at banning any discussion in schools of the social roots of racial, sexual and other forms of social and class oppression. They are also avowedly anti-communist. We are dealing with a concerted effort to whitewash the history of U.S. capitalism, founded on genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of African Americans, whose oppression continues to this day. With all their concern about causing distress to white racist students (and parents), these measures victimize, African American, Latino, Native American and Asian students. And by banning discussion of gender issues, they reinforce the oppression of students on the basis of their gender or sexuality.

This is no abstract debate over curriculum, but an attempt at systematic regimentation of the population and censorship of any discussion of racial oppression. It would grant racists veto power over what and how curricula is taught. These laws create breeding grounds for fascist vigilantes. Most require that “alternative views” be presented. So if there is discussion of the ominous 2017 white-supremacist mobilization in Charlottesville, Virginia, where torch-bearing right-wingers chanted “Jews will not replace us” and a Nazi ran over and killed anti-racist Heather Heyer, what would be the “alternative view” – justification for fascist murder?

Public school educators are forced to walk a very fuzzy and perilous line just to keep their jobs, unclear on how to teach mandated subject matter, and what language to use without breaking the law. Meanwhile, students, parents and administrators are transformed into McCarthyite spies in this racist witch-hunt. (Don’t like your grade? Out your teacher!) They even want to make educators and parents complicit in this racist censorship by forming committees to purge texts and libraries of “prohibited concepts.” Books will be banned – is book burning next?

How this will play out is already clear. On Fox News (which has railed non-stop against “critical race theory”) ultra-rightist fanatic Tucker Carlson has called to “get cameras in every classroom … to oversee the people teaching your children,” and to put a stop to the “civilization-ending poison” of CRT (Newsweek, 19 July). You can bet that right-wing parents will deputize their offspring to use their cellphones to nail any teacher who so much as utters the words “systemic racism.” This racist backlash is so widespread that spokesmen for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund compare it to the “massive resistance” to the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school integration decision that spawned over 200 whites-only private “academies” across the South. Anti-“CRT” activists such as the founder of “No Left Turn” are pulling their children out of public schools.

The gag laws take aim at standards, curricula, lesson plans, textbooks, instructional materials and practices. In some districts, school officials have vowed to fight the racist onslaught. In Oklahoma, school superintendents in Tulsa and Millwood, with overwhelmingly black student bodies, and in Hanna, a small district most of whose students are Native Americans, have vowed that they will “Risk Breaking State Law to Continue Anti-Racism Work” (Education Week, 6 August). The Zinn Education Project (named after Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States) is seeking 12,800 signatures to a pledge to “refuse to lie to young people about U.S. history and current events,” names to be publicly posted. The teachers are brave, but this is potentially problematic, as “alt-right” web sites and fascists are doxing signers.

The racist onslaught against teaching about – or even discussing – the roots of racism must be fought in an organized, massive way. Yet the two national teachers unions – American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) – have only responded weakly, largely leaving it up to local affiliates and individual teachers to fight the anti-CRT witch hunt. At its annual meeting at the beginning of July, the NEA passed a resolution saying it would prepare materials to “fight back against anti-CRT rhetoric” and “convey its support for the accurate and honest teaching of social studies topics,” that would “be informed by academic frameworks … including critical race theory.” The NEA also said it would call together with the Zinn Project for an October 14 “national day of action to teach lessons about structural racism and oppression.” Not a word about the racist gag laws – much less about fighting them – in this resolution that then disappeared from the NEA site.

Over at the AFT, union president Randi Weingarten gave a July 6 speech declaring that “culture warriors are labeling any discussion of race, racism or discrimination as CRT to try to make it toxic.” She criticized the Texas law that makes it illegal to teach 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.” But as far as doing anything about it, all she offered was that “our union will defend any member who gets in trouble for teaching honest history,” that it has “a legal defense fund ready to go” and is “preparing for litigation.” The AFT and NEA are not fighting these racist censorship laws themselves, demanding they be revoked, but instead are leaving it to individual educators to stand up and fight. That goes against the whole purpose of unions, to organize collective defense of and struggle for our rights and interests.

Around the country the anti-“CRT” campaign has led to swarming of school board meetings by hundreds of right-wingers – from Las Vegas, Nevada to Rochester, Minnesota to Loudoun County, Virginia and Cherokee County, Georgia – as they seek to bully members into approving the racist ban on education about racism. But the national teachers unions, and the educators around the Zinn Project, despite their desire to resist this onslaught, are not countermobilizing on the ground against the racist reactionaries. This leaves the initiative in the hands of the racists. These racist gag laws should be shredded by mass mobilization and broken by concerted action of the education unions – backed by anti-racist and class-conscious educators, students, parents and school staff – against the whitewashing of U.S. history.  

A central reason for the failure to mobilize is the political subordination of the unions to the capitalist Democratic Party.4 Across the U.S., teacher unions are the backbone of Democrats’ get-out-the-vote efforts. The union bureaucracy fears that direct confrontation with the Trump mobs would hurt Biden and Democratic candidates in “swing” districts, endangering the Democrats’ narrow control of Congress. Yet the Democrats are key players in the bipartisan bourgeois attack on public education. Unionized teachers in Republican-controlled states mobilized by the tens of thousands in the 2018 “red state revolt.” But to do so they had to overcome resistance from the pro-Democratic union tops. Class-conscious educators fight to oust the bureaucrats, break with the Democrats and build a class-struggle workers Party.

Critical Race Theory: An Anti-Marxist Program of Defeat

After the defeat of desegregation by busing in the 1970s, founders of Critical Race Theory abandoned the struggle to integrate the schools. Marxists reject the defeatist doctrine of CRT and counterpose the fight for revolutionary integrationism. We demand integrated, high-quality, public education for all. Above: Class Struggle Education Workers, Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas and Internationalist Group at Juneteenth march in New York City last year.  (Internationalist photo)

Critical Race Theory itself is very different from the caricature presented by the anti-“CRT” racist reactionaries. From the mouths of Trump, Republican politicians, right-wing TV hate-mongers and “blue lives matter” apologists for police murder, “CRT” is universally described as “Marxist” or “neo-Marxist.” But Critical Race Theory is actually deeply anti-Marxist, locating the origins of racial oppression not in the racist capitalist system but in what they call “white supremacy.” By this its proponents do not mean the rule of the slavocracy of the Confederacy, or the terror of the hooded white supremacists of the Ku Klux Klan, or even the laws of the Jim Crow South but rather a society dominated by an undifferentiated mass of white people. Yet “white Americans” in general did not impose slavery, the planters, merchants and bankers did. The rulers of the U.S. are not white people in general but the owners of capital and their politicians.

Key to their rule – going back to this society’s origins and continuing today – has been the special or double oppression of African Americans. Against this materialist understanding, liberal idealists argue “as though the chief business of slavery were the production of white supremacy instead of the production of cotton, sugar, rice and tobacco” for profit, as Barbara J. Fields observed in her classic “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America” (1990).5 As she notes, it was the slave plantation system that produced the ideology of race and racism in the U.S.; and it continues to be reproduced every day in capitalist America not because of some timeless disembodied power of “white supremacy” but because the material realities of racial oppression and unending social inequalities in this capitalist society continue to generate and reproduce it.

The founders of Critical Race Theory responded to the defeat of busing in the 1970s by abandoning the struggle for school desegregation.6 As this defeatist theory gained circulation in academia, the common language in the field of education has shifted to reflect it. Instead of fighting for integration, the calls are now for “diversity,” that is obtaining slots for a select few of the oppressed in elite institutions. Instead of fighting for equality, we hear sugary phrases about “equity” (meaning what, exactly?). And while there is a lot of talk about “white privilege,” proponents of CRT (the real thing, not the Trumpists’ caricature) have ditched the fight for black liberation that uproots the special oppression of African Americans, because they seek some class privilege for themselves and their clientele.

Along with references to institutional racism and structural racism, it has now become widely accepted that there is systemic racism in the U.S. But what is that system? As Marxists, we answer that the fact that every advance for black rights has met with a backlash that protracts the oppression of African Americans is not due to irremediable racism of white people in general, but to the racist capitalist system which produces and endlessly reproduces black oppression. The answer is to fight for revolutionary integrationism through militant class struggle against racist reaction. It means a fight for black liberation through socialist revolution, which is the last thing that the thoroughly bourgeois liberal pundits of the 1619 Project7 and academic CRT theorists would want.

For educators, the task is not to choose between one false “narrative” or another, liberal vs. conservative, but to fight these witch-hunting gag laws and the bipartisan racist onslaught against public education head-on. We need to mobilize in the streets and against the capitalist courts and politicians who would regiment students and teachers. Rather than guilt-tripping white teachers, students, parents and workers with “privilege walks” to ferret out “implicit bias” purportedly shared by all, we must deal with the material basis that generates racist ideology. That includes fighting to end racial segregation, tracking and “screening” for elite schools by uniting teachers, students, parents and workers in a union-led fight for quality, integrated public education for all. That, of course, will be opposed by many liberals, which will make it clear to all, in struggle, who the racists are.

There should be no illusions. Witch hunts in the schools are nothing new. Public education is hardly a zone of “institutional neutrality.” Under capitalism, schools have a class character: public or private, they are capitalist institutions, the primary centers of reproducing bourgeois values, principles, and ideologies. As Marx wrote (in The German Ideology [1847]) “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.” That is why state education boards go over textbooks with a fine-toothed comb. Any serious effort to teach the real history of racist American capitalism will be met with massive opposition from the rulers, and possibly outlawed. Today the conservatives are trying to do just that with their caricature of “critical race theory.” Yesterday liberals and conservatives joined hands to purge anyone they deemed communists. The McCarthyite purges of the 1940s and ’50s were largely successful, but U.S. society has changed and the current racist witch-hunters can be defeated.

To combat this onslaught requires a leadership with a program and the determination to fight. The teachers unions, and most “social justice” caucuses in them, lack both. Class Struggle Education Workers is an organization of Marxist educators, working fraternally with the Internationalist Group, that seeks to revolutionize education – and all of society. We fight to provide education that truly serves working people and the emancipation of humanity, still stuck in the Dark Ages of enforced ignorance. We say plainly that such an education is not possible under capitalism, which condemns hundreds of thousands to die of a modern plague, and millions to grinding poverty; where many of our students are homeless; where women and girls are prevented from learning by reactionary thugs who got their start as “holy warriors” for the “free world”; where black youth are executed on the streets by racist police.

Class-conscious educators must be part of the front ranks of the struggle for the liberation of all the oppressed. Is this your fight, too? If so, join us. We’ve got a big job ahead.  ■

  1. 1. See “Denial of Evolution Is a Form of White Supremacy,” in Scientific American (5 July): “At the heart of white evangelical creationism is the mythology of an unbroken white lineage that stretches back to a light-skinned Adam and Eve.”
  2. 2. This served as the model for the Texas law and bills in Ohio and Arizona.
  3. 3. “Who’s Really Driving Critical Race Theory Legislation? An Investigation,” Education Week, 19 July.
  4. 4. AFT president Randi Weingarten is a member of the Democratic National Committee.
  5. 5. Pioneering U.S. Trotskyist Richard S. Fraser made a similar point in his “The Negro Struggle and the Proletarian Revolution” (1953); see section on “The Origin of the Race Concept.”
  6. 6. See Charles Brover, “Revolutionary Integrationism vs. ‘Critical Race Theory’” in this issue of Marxism & Education.
  7. 7. See “The 1619 Project: Misidentifying the Roots of Racism,” in this issue of Marxim & Education.