Harvey Graff

The combined promotions of what is effectively a nondebate over critical race theory and the 1620, 1776, and 1836 “projects” of alternative, anti-factual, and literally white-washed American history lead to rants and screeds from attention-seeking, wannabe presidential candidates and other Republican politicians. Unsurprisingly, they begin by echoing the “former guy.” (See Donald J. Trump, “A plan to get divisive & radical theories out of our schools.”On the context, see my essays and forum: “The attack on critical race theory threatens our democracy”; “There Is No Debate About Critical Race Theory: How GOP politicians and conservative activists are trying to create controversy where there is none”; “Fiction and Fact About Critical Race Theory,” Forum,Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Ohio State University, Sept. 9, 2021; “The New White Fright and Flight and the Critical Race Theory Nondebate.”)

Senator Ted Cruz with his Princeton B.A. and a Harvard law degree, Sen. Josh Hawley with a Ph.D. in American history from Yale and a history B.A. from Stanford, Gov. Ron DeSantis with a Yale B.A. and a Harvard law degree, Sen. Tom Cotton with Harvard B.A. and law degrees, and others parrot falsehoods and contradictions in statements on and off the floor of Congress and State Houses.

Cruz absurdly blurts out to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s convention that critical race theory is “as racist as Klansmen in white sheets.” Cruz almost certainly studied critical race theory at Harvard Law School.

Meanwhile, Cotton passesby 50 to 49 votes (with Sen. Joe Manchin’s assent) a completely unrelated and inappropriate amendment authorizing federal “defunding” of schools that teach critical race theory. His misleading amendment to the legislation authorizing what was then the $3.5 trillion second infrastructure bill represents a triumph for what I call the Second Big Lie. This is the allegation, without evidence and based solely on a national publicity campaign, that teaching critical race theory and even teaching about race in K-12 schools should be banned.Cotton’s Trump-era motion to ban teaching of the 1619 Project in American schools failed miserably. Like Trump, he is unaware that states control school curricula, not the federal government.

Let’s be clear. Critical race theory is not taught in K-12 education; it is a subject primarily for law schools where it is a regular, often required subject. Race is an unavoidable and necessary subject in any course on American history or civics. Race, racial relations, and slavery are central to the American experience and to the continuing experiment with popular democracy. The carefully crafted, well-organized and well-funded campaign to stop normal (if not always sufficient) teaching relies on a series of lies: students are “shamed,” “blamed,” and “made to feel responsible” for the missteps of the past. Of this, no evidence is produced. That does not give our Ivy League-trained senators any pause.

These self-appointed, ideologically opportunistic “critics” are ignorant of the subjects that they vilify. They—and the propagandists they imitatefrom Christopher Rufo to the Heritage PAC, 1776 Project, and Citizens for American Renewal—fabricate evidence that a problem exists. The campaign repeatedly cites a small handful of “protesting parents” from a scattering of states. When we examine the examples, nowhere do parents present evidence from their children’s classrooms. No debate exists, despite incessant claims that “debate rages.”

Simultaneously, more than a dozen attorneys general from Republican-controlled states join together to demand that the U.S. Department of Education must refuse to endorse teaching either the 1619 Project or critical race theory. State Boards of Education heatedly debate bans versus endorsement of teaching accurate, equitable, and inclusive history and civics. (See my “Assault on critical race theory is an attack on democracy itself” and “Dave Yost vs. American history.”)

Almost 20 Republican-led state legislatures and governors have proposed or passed various forms of legislation aimed at banning teaching critical race theory (which is not taught) and in awkward, typically unenforceable ways, teaching or even talking about race, race relations, and slavery. If such “bans” were enforceable, teaching American history and civics would effectively end.

These state actions are violations of First Amendment free speech rights of both teachers and students. These dishonest campaigns constitute a serious threat to the intellectual and individual development of future citizens, and a unified nation. They are a threat to our democracy.

Courtroom challenges advance from free speech and civil liberties groups, teachers’ organizations, and academic professional societies. Classroom teachers alternatively report that they will either ignore the bans and go about their legitimate business, or that they are seriously considering early retirement. The toll is incalculable. That is part of the right-wing strategy.

A recent case in point is Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, who fears a right-wing Republican primary challenger. Commenting on the two bills in the state house and senate aimed at banning teaching something or other, DeWine first declares his support for teaching the good and the bad in U.S. history. In his next breath, he announces that he opposes teaching anything that can be construed as “divisive.” When the media asked for him to reconcile this contradiction, his office replied “no further comment.”

Other right-wing senators and representatives imitate these groundless appeals when speaking to sympathetic and, they hope, impressionable others who share their fears and grievances of a changing United States and an undocumented inclusive history. As far as I can tell, the effect is not particularly successful among those audiences lacking initial sympathies and political or ideological commitments.

To conclude that this contagious ignorance among the highly educated but politically opportunistic is insulting to the American public is only to begin the critique. In another essay, I propose a required civics test for candidates for public office. We have no time to spare.


Harvey J. Graff is Professor Emeritus of English and History and Ohio Eminent Scholar, The Ohio State University. He is the author of many books on social history. Searching for Literacy: The Social and Intellectual Origins of Literacy Studies is forthcoming in 2022. He writes and speaks widely on critical race theory and related issues. His essays on critical race theory have appeared in the Columbus Dispatch, Inside Higher Education, Washington Monthly, Academe Blog, and Publishers Weekly. He has presented on this topic to a forum to the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University and spoken on NPR stations.