The critics were right: "Critical race theory" panic is just a cover for silencing educators

Republicans said they wouldn't ban books or erase history — but that is exactly what they're doing

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 28, 2022 12:55PM (EST)

Glenn Youngkin, Ron DeSantis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Maus by Art Spiegelman (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Glenn Youngkin, Ron DeSantis, Martin Luther King Jr. and Maus by Art Spiegelman (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

When Republicans across the nation started storming school board meetings, in full-blown hysterics about something called "critical race theory," the initial reaction of the non-Fox News-watcher was confusion. Very few even know what critical race theory is. It is not being taught to the vast majority of public school children, as it's a high level academic theory used by legal scholars and sociologists, not 8th graders. But soon it became clear that "critical race theory" was being invoked as a scare term, exploiting this multisyllabic academic jargon as cover for what was, in actuality, an effort to censor any curricula or educational materials that taught kids unpleasant truths about the history of fascism, the struggle for civil rights, or the existence of LGBTQ people. 

Republicans, unsurprisingly, faked umbrage at this claim, insisting repeatedly that they had no intention of removing standard classroom lessons on matters like the Holocaust, Brown vs. the Board of Education, or the March on Washington. Instead, their talking points were a jumbled, bad faith explosion of claims that they were actually against racism and just worried about "divisive" lessons. They kept this patter of nonsense up, even as Virginia's successful GOP gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin ran ads celebrating a right-wing mother who tried to keep her son from reading "Beloved" by Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, a book that was clearly only objectionable because it portrayed slavery in a bad light. 

RELATED: Florida school district cancels real history as anti-CRT censorship spreads

It turns out that liberal critics were right and conservatives were lying. "Critical race theory" was, in fact, just a scare term the right was using as cover for what is an all-out, nationwide war on teaching very basic lessons to kids about important historical events — including the civil rights movement and the Holocaust. 

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A national scandal erupted this week when it was discovered that a Tennessee school board pulled the famous graphic novel "Maus," by Art Spiegelman, from their curriculum. The book is rightly regarded as a classic for its depiction not just of the brutalities of the Holocaust, but the lingering impacts on the survivors and their families. In response to the criticism, right-wing activist Christopher Rufo — who has bragged about inventing the use of "critical race theory" as a scare term for exactly this purpose — tried to deny that the book was being yanked for Holocaust denialism reasons. He insisted they just wanted a "better book" to teach. 

Rufo's dishonesty should be apparent to anyone who has read "Maus," as there really is no better book to teach. But reading the minutes of the meeting erases all doubt that the objections to the book were rooted in a belief that the truth of the Holocaust should remain hidden. One board member, Tony Allman, explicitly said educators "don't need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff," because it "shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids," and "it is not wise or healthy." Another member complained that the book showed a suicide caused by survivor's guilt, claiming it somehow undermined efforts to teach "ethics to our kids." 

Needless to say, "Maus" does not "promote" killing kids or suicide. Insofar as it "promotes" anything, it's an understanding of the dangers of fascism, and the inhumanity that racism breeds. And it's those truths that clearly rattled the school board members. That's what they don't want young people exposed to. 

RELATED: Meet Christopher Rufo — leader of the incoherent right-wing attack on "critical race theory"

The "Maus" scandal is just the tip of the iceberg, of course.

In Florida, the legislature is pushing through a ban of history education that causes "discomfort," and despite claims to the contrary, there's simply no way to teach about the history of lynching or slavery or Jim Crow without said discomfort. As Kathryn Joyce reported for Salon, one of the most immediate results was a school district in central Florida canceling a training seminar for teachers on how to teach subjects such as the March on Washington, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Montgomery bus boycott. 

The behavior of Florida's Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, makes quite clear that the intent here is to make it too fraught for teachers to discuss any history of race in America at all. He's been pushing for a law that would allow parents to comb over school curricula and sue school districts if they find anything they don't like. That may sound "empowering" initially, but, as the fight over "Maus" demonstrates, the reality is that there are always people out there who simply don't think any unpleasant facts about history should be taught. And giving parents this level of veto power would mean erasing any history but the occasional lesson about George Washington and the cherry tree. (Which didn't actually happen.) 

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As Jon Skolnik reports for Salon, a Missouri school district banned "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, using the usual bad faith claims that the objections were somehow about graphic sex. But, of course, this fits the larger pattern of white parents throwing fits about books and lessons that tell the truth about racism, and especially about books like Morrison's, which humanize the victims of racism. 

In Williamson County, Tennessee, Moms for Liberty — a laughably false name for this pro-censorship group — tried to ban 31 books. It's not hard to detect the history they're trying to erase. Books that were targeted include "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the March on Washington," "We Are the Ship: The Story of Negro League Baseball," and "Separate Is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family's Fight for Desegregation." A couple of books about Greek mythology were also tossed on the list because heaven forbid kids learn about lost religions and start to ask hard questions about existing ones. Of the challenged books, one was outright banned — Newberry winner "Walk Two Moons," which clearly offends by humanizing Native Americans. Seven other books are being hobbled with "restrictions" on what parts of the book kids are allowed to read. Targeted for censorship: Admitting that male seahorses nurture their young, a book that says it's okay to have feelings, a book about the fight to desegregate schools, a book about how it's okay for boys to like poetry, and a book that features interracial relationships. 

RELATED: Why the panic over "critical race theory" is the perfect right-wing troll

So now the truth is out: Republicans weren't upset about "critical race theory" or anything like it. It was a fake panic, propped up to cover for what they really want to do: Erase the history of racism from schools. As a side bonus, they also wish to force extremely rigid gender roles on children. It's not just about attacking LGBTQ kids. This hysteria has reached the point of refusing to admit boys can like poetry or that fathers can care for babies. 

Still, this exposure isn't slowing Republicans down one bit.

Youngkin, who won by pretending to be a moderate who was opposed to fictional leftist extremism, is already showing his true colors as a Virginia governor. He's calling on right-wing parents to report teachers for any lessons they deem "divisive." As these previous reports show, that's an expansive ask, as many parents clearly think it's "divisive" to admit segregation happened, slavery was real, or the Holocaust was horrific. Youngkin's intent is quite clearly to scare teachers into simply not teaching history, at least not in any way that's truthful or remotely educational. Or to scare teachers into not teaching literature that humanizes people of color or LGBTQ people, or men who like poetry for that matter. As usual, despite their denials, Republicans really are behaving like the deplorables their critics say they are

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Critical Race Theory Glenn Youngkin "maus Moms For Liberty Ron Desantis