From Washington, D.C., to Kansas, culture war issues are topping the conservative agenda. Many conservatives are advocating restricting speech in schools to ban something called “critical race theory” (CRT). 

CRT isn’t a theory like, say, the theory of gravity that has clear rules and equations. Rather, it’s more like a perspective. Oversimplified, it means thinking about how race matters in law, society and institutions, often in ways that promote racial inequality. 

For example, Black families generally have less inherited wealth than white families. CRT might encourage considering how slavery and segregation limited economic opportunities for Blacks over generations, contributing to a racial wealth gap today. 

That’s it. You don’t need a fancy academic label like “CRT” to think about how race matters in America. 

CRT is not diversity or racial sensitivity training. It doesn’t regulate speech, require supporting reparations, or say that racism explains everything. Of course, like any idea, some people use CRT to voice controversial opinions, and that gets cherry picked for dramatic political arguments.  

Conservatives are using coordinated language to attack CRT as some big boogeyman, calling it anti-American, anti-white, socialist, unpatriotic, anti-individualism, divisive, etc. 

But conservatives have largely manufactured this CRT controversy as “outrage of the day” political fodder. Yes, schools teach and talk about race. But overwhelmingly, schools don’t teach CRT. 

The real impact of this controversy is on freedom of speech in schools — whether and how students are exposed to discussions of race. In some states, conservatives have outlawed or attempted to outlaw CRT in schools. The Kansas attorney general has also joined a letter that some interpret as anti-CRT.  

It’s harder for conservatives to ban CRT than you’d think. Since CRT is just a perspective, it’s often difficult to identify and censor.  

For example, under these proposed speech codes, schools can teach that slavery happened. But you can’t control reactions to that. Maybe a parent or politician feels that a lesson about slavery implied something imperfect about America. Or maybe that lesson included the opinion of a Black person about what slavery means to them, and that upset some folks. Under the varied regulations that conservatives are promoting in states to ban CRT, that lesson can be interpreted as breaking the law because of how it made someone feel. Hello, lawsuit. 

Critical thinking about race also gets dangerous. Under these new regulations, discussing race and criminal justice in a social studies class gets borderline criminal depending upon who expressed what opinion and how that conversation was interpreted. 

Teachers in some states are telling reporters that they would rather avoid discussing race than risk breaking new speech laws. Thus, in censoring how race gets discussed, conservatives are pressuring educators to just ignore the topic. 

If you’re wondering why the mass conniption about something that overwhelmingly isn’t in school curricula, politics is the answer. Some consultant probably distributed a memo on how to blow this issue up and agitate some chunk of voters. 

Especially with conservatives attacking how social media companies regulate speech on privately owned platforms, it’s ironic that many of them advocate using government power to censor discussions about race in schools. If this manufactured crisis comes to Kansas and our 2022 elections, it will be to the detriment of not just free speech and schools, but the many issues that politicians will be neglecting. 

 

Patrick R. Miller is an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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