Home > Uncategorized > Banning critical race theory is like banning abolitionist education – posted 7/27/2021

Banning critical race theory is like banning abolitionist education – posted 7/27/2021

One puzzling aspect of the conservative attack on critical race theory is why it is happening now. Why in 2021 are states passing laws to inhibit and prevent free and open exploration of racism and slavery? All of a sudden in the last year conservatives and FOX got hot and bothered about it.

I think it is part of a national effort to control the narrative about our racial history. Since the George Floyd protests, conservatives are afraid and they want to reassert a sanitized version of history told from a white supremacist point of view. Fearing replacement by multi-racial democracy, they double down on voter suppression and 21st century Jim Crow.

Just as they did with the 1619 Project, conservatives needed to create a bogeyman and critical race theory serves that purpose.

A national opinion poll taken by Reuters/Ipsos found 57% of adults were unfamiliar with the term critical race theory. Many of those who claimed familiarity embraced misconceptions spread by conservative media outlets. It is a certainty that many who are using the term “critical race theory” have no clue what it is.

The campaign against critical race theory can only have a chilling effect on classroom speech. It will inhibit teachers and students who may wonder if their ideas have strayed over some Maginot line. It is highly likely many teachers will censor themselves to avoid being reported and getting into trouble.

The new laws limiting the teaching of critical race theory are almost certainly an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

In considering why critical race theory is now under attack, a historical parallel comes to mind. Nineteenth century white supremacists, who also wanted to control the historical narrative, castigated abolitionist educators in a fashion similar to modern-day conservatives opposing critical race theory.

Before the abolition of slavery, the story of nineteenth century American life was contested terrain. Slavers and abolitionists embodied opposites sides of the coin. One side saw a noble order sanctioned by god; the other side saw a monstrous and unacknowledged evil.

Slavery was not just a political and economic order – it had ideological underpinnings and justification. Much of the ideological battle around slavery has been forgotten.

The South lived in fear of slave rebellion and insurrection. The Haitian revolution especially stirred slave resistance. The southern states believed it was critical to prevent black men and women from becoming literate. Knowledge could encourage independence and free thought.

In the 1830’s, new laws prohibited slaves from learning to read and write. Black illiteracy was considered essential to the internal security of the slave South. All slave states except Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee passed laws against teaching slaves to read and write.

The historian Patrick Breen wrote, “Anti-literacy laws were written in response to the rise of abolitionism in the north”. Alabama passed a law in 1833 that read:

“..any person or persons who shall attempt to teach any free person of color, or slave, to spell, read or write shall upon conviction thereof indictment be fined in a sum not less than two hundred and fifty dollars nor more than five hundred dollars.” (The fine would be equivalent to $7600 in today’s dollars)

Those slaves who learned reading and writing had to be extremely careful. Slaveowners were known to cut off thumbs or fingers for that offense.

The South was frightened by abolitionists like David Walker who distributed the Appeal, a pamphlet calling for uprisings to end slavery and by William Lloyd Garrison who published the Liberator, a newspaper committed to freedom for the enslaved. Garrison called for the immediate uncompensated abolition of slavery. Southerners greatly feared the possibility of an interracial abolitionist movement.

In 1835, the Anti-Slavery Society flooded the South with abolitionist literature through a postal campaign. The postal campaign provoked a very hostile response with a massive public burning of abolitionist literature in Charleston, South Carolina.

The story the South told was about the superiority of white Anglo-Saxon institutions. Slavery was touted as normal and natural. Black people were disparaged as irresponsible, child-like, incapable of self-control and ignorant. Black people were allegedly grateful and content with their position as slaves.

North Carolina passed laws aimed at suppressing slave rebellions by repressing the spread of abolitionist literature. An Act to Prevent the Circulation of Seditious Publications made it a felony to import and distribute “any written or printed pamphlet or paper…the evident tendency whereof would be to excite insurrections, conspiracy or resistance”.

In 1829, Georgia also passed a law which made circulating insurrectionary texts punishable by death.

While we have moved beyond opposing black literacy, the conservative response to critical race theory is very much like the opposition to abolitionism. Then it was fear of slave resistance, now it is fear of Black Lives Matter.

The abolitionists had circulated books and leaflets providing true accounts of life under slavery. Critical race theorists write books about systemic racism and how racism is deeply interwoven into housing, education, health care, policing and all walks of life. Invested in a whitewashed version of our past, conservatives have no time for any anti-racist narrative. They act like critical race theory is some kind of extremism which is exactly the way 19th century southerners saw abolitionism.

The common thread is a fear that abolitionism and critical race theory provoked and provoke unrest among the oppressed.That was and is a threat to white supremacy.

Although Black Lives Matter has been an overwhelmingly peaceful movement, conservatives have responded with anti-protest legislation. Back in their day, the slave states did similarly.

Just as happened almost 200 years ago, conservatives say anti-racists are motivated by hate. Slaveowners and white supremacists said the same about abolitionists and portrayed them as fanatics.

The mistake made is the idea that critical race theory has anything to do with hating white people. It does not. Critical race theory only tries to understand structures of racism and how they operate in society.

America still has a deep white supremacy problem. Consistent anti-racists can see that the fight today is a continuation of the same fight the abolitionists fought, just a different permutation.

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