The townspeople have clutched their pearls and fetched their pitchforks to raise hell against the new boogeyman du jour allegedly stomping the horizon. Do we dare speak its name? That boogeyman is . . . Critical Race Theory. White conservatives don’t want its antiracist agenda infecting children’s minds. During a Newsmax segment, even political commentator Dick Morris went as far as to call Critical Race Theory a “cancer” and suggested that teaching it to children in schools could “reinforce the Oedipal notion all kids have of wanting to kill their father and marry their mother.” Honestly, there are wilder conspiracy theories that make more sense. The backlash is no different from the time when our former white supremacist in chief called for teaching “patriotic” histories.
Amid the hubbub, President Biden signed a law, making Juneteenth a federal holiday. But you can’t appreciate the celebration and relevance of the holiday without knowledge of the US’s original sin and its overarching reach in our policies today. In response to this, we reached out to some of our authors to weigh on all the sound and fury. Here’s what they had to say.
The recent decision of the Biden-Harris administration to recognize Juneteenth as a federal holiday coincides with widespread efforts to pass new laws restricting voting at the state level and renewed attempts to limit the teaching of diverse histories in classrooms across the country. These developments are connected and serve as an important reminder that symbolic gestures, while meaningful, fall short of addressing systemic racism in American society. Making Juneteenth a federal holiday does nothing to dismantle racism or its legacies. It should, however, serve as an impetus to reaffirm our commitment to building a more just and equal society—one that truly encapsulates the spirit of Juneteenth.
—Keisha N. Blain, Until I Am Free: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Enduring Message to America
This is less a backlash against Critical Race Theory—a set of rigorous, theoretical concepts that obviously very few of the current CRT critics have read—and more a blow against the global Black Lives Matter movement. We are in an Empire Strikes Back moment when elements of the ruling class are trying to crush movements for policing reforms, historical truth, and working-class power.
The people inside of the vibrant social movements today have developed a new understanding of this nation’s past as well as its potential. They are on the cusp of major breakthroughs. The millions of people who have marched, organized, and have attended city council meetings across the country in support of BLM are moving toward creating the conditions for dismantling mass incarceration and creating a universal health care system. Above all, this is what the enemies of Critical Race Theory fear. They fear the power of a people awakened to their potential and they tremble at the vision of a truly antiracist and democratic society. We must push ever harder to bring a new world into existence.
—Paul Ortiz, An African American and Latinx History of the United States
For an educator like me, the federal observance of Juneteenth brings up a familiar and well-historied divide between word and deed that has worked, for centuries, to perpetuate contorted versions of US history. In the same week that Biden signed into law the national holiday observing Juneteenth, four states had voted in laws forbidding the teaching of Critical Race Theory in K-12 schools, and similar bills were in process in nineteen other states. Critical Race Theory is a multi-faceted legal theory with evidence that asserts that racism is enshrined in the nation’s laws. Some states, such as Iowa, are extending this McCarthy-esque ban to higher education. Iowa House Bill 802 “prohibits the use of curriculum that teaches the topics of slavery, racial oppression, racial segregation or racial discrimination . . . ”
It is literally impossible to teach the accurate history of Juneteenth without referring to slavery as an economic system that enslavers in Texas simply refused to cede until Union soldiers came to Galveston to enforce the then two-year-old Emancipation Proclamation. Interestingly, these white supremacy-fueled backlash bills and laws do not forbid teaching about the ongoing project of erasing Indigeneity.
Like the struggle to make Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday an observed federal holiday, Juneteenth is surrounded by watered down references that blur historical accuracy. However, the long-standing antiracist teaching parses out these contradictions and lifts up accuracy and facts.
—Leigh Patel, No Study Without Struggle: Confronting Settler Colonialism in Higher Education
The current controversy over Critical Race Theory is a reflection not of the American Right’s cultural strength, but of its waning ideological influence. Under the eras of Ronald Reagan and even George W. Bush, when conservatives controlled the bipartisan policy conversation around cutting taxes, going to war, and neglecting racial inequality, terms like freedom, equality of opportunity, and democracy were used, without second thought or much philosophical elaboration, to support right-wing initiatives.
Now, as the Right is unable to win national elections through the popular vote and is forced to confront a cultural landscape where—after the George Floyd protests of 2020—antiracism is a mainstream idea, it resorts to increasingly technical attacks on racial justice through demonizing an academic discipline like Critical Race Theory. In doing this, the Right is playing on the home turf of the scholarly journals and elite law schools that it claims to despise and showing that it can no longer control the narrative around race in the US. The Right no longer is confident that populist terms like “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” are winning slogans, like they were in the early 2010s. The Right can’t brazenly invoke the idea of colorblindness like it used to, effectively, in the 1990s—not after public attention on mass incarceration and police brutality. So, instead, it tries to say “Critical Race Theory” is dangerous and anti-American. Doing this might be fine for playing to the Right’s hardcore Fox News watching base, but it isn’t a strategy for seizing the US cultural vocabulary.
And yet, as the Right watches from the sidelines and seethes around the culture’s shift on antiracism, the young interracial activists on the ground are doing just this. They’re not just taking about Critical Race Theory; they’re already putting it into practice: running for office, organizing in their communities, and unapologetically advocating for policies to end racism.
—Alex Zamalin, Against Civility: The Hidden Racism in Our Obsession with Civility