Fighting back against CRT panic: Educators organize around the threat to academic freedom

Sumi Cho of the African American Policy Forum on the campus campaign to combat the right-wing assault on freedom

By Kathryn Joyce

Published March 7, 2022 5:45AM (EST)

A parent sits in the gallery before the Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses a proposed resolution to ban teaching critical race theory in schools. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
A parent sits in the gallery before the Placentia Yorba Linda School Board discusses a proposed resolution to ban teaching critical race theory in schools. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Last week, the nonprofit College Board, which oversees things like SAT exams and Advanced Placement courses, tentatively waded into the school wars. The board published a new set of principles opposing censorship, supporting academic freedom and, most potently, noting that school bans that affect required subjects for AP courses could result in those classes losing their AP credits. As bans on teaching anything from systemic racism to LGBTQ issues to basic history proliferate around the country, the College Board's statement represents just one way that institutions of higher education are beginning to take a stand.

In mid-February, the Faculty Council of the University of Texas in Austin voted to approve a resolution proactively "affirming the fundamental rights of faculty to academic freedom in its broadest sense, inclusive of research and teaching of race and gender theory." The resolution rejected any efforts to restrict curricula at UT, and called on the school's president to fight any attempts to dictate what professors can teach that might arise down the line.  

Most of the time, resolutions like this — which carry no actual force — are destined to be archived and quickly forgotten. But this one was different, as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a far-right Republican and a hero to conservatives across the nation, responded vehemently on Twitter, writing, "I will not stand by and let looney Marxist UT professors poison the minds of young students with Critical Race Theory. We banned it in publicly funded K-12 and we will ban it in publicly funded higher ed." At a press conference several days later, Patrick added a new threat to end tenure in Texas for all future faculty hires and to revoke tenure for any faculty members who teach CRT, in order to fire them. 

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"To these professors who voted 41 to five telling the taxpayers, and the parents and the Legislature and your own Board of Regents to get out of their business, that we have no say in what you do in the classroom, you've opened the door for this issue because you went too far," Patrick said. "We're going to take this on."

But the UT resolution was just one among a number of forceful statements that have emerged in recent weeks, many of them shaped by the advocacy of the African American Policy Forum (AAPF), a progressive think tank cofounded by law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw, a foundational scholar of critical race theory and intersectionality, and political scientist Luke Harris. 

After conservatives began to attack the supposed spread of CRT in late 2020, says AAPF's director of strategic initiatives Sumi Cho, the organization sounded an early alarm about how school politics might be weaponized against civil rights. The group launched a new campaign, the Truth Be Told initiative, to defend accurate race and gender education in schools. In partnership with the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University, the initiative also runs a hotline for educators facing harassment or threats of termination for what they teach, in addition to campaigning for colleges and universities to release faculty resolutions in support of academic freedom. It also created a model resolution that faculty at higher ed institutions could use to formalize their response. To date, AAPF says some 20 colleges and universities, in at least 16 states, have introduced a version of their model resolution, or one with similar intentions, with others likely to join soon. 

Cho spoke with Salon in late February. 

How was the Truth Be Told initiative started? 

As soon as President Trump announced Executive Order 13950 in September 2020, primarily targeting diversity training by federal agencies, AAPF recognized the danger this would have to a range of things. We joined other civil rights organizations to support litigation against the order. When President Biden was inaugurated, he promptly rescinded the order and replaced it with one pursuing equity in federal agencies. But that didn't eliminate the problem of the issue spreading to the states, in part because of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the coordination of conservative legislation measures at their December 2020 summit, which specifically targeted critical race theory (CRT) for state action. We saw a proliferation of legislation throughout the states, funded by dark money and promoted through Fox News and other sources. 

From the spring of 2021 through the end of the year, we saw over a dozen states pass legislation seeking to restrict the discussion of race and gender justice. But by the beginning of 2022 it became an even meaner and more extreme campaign, in both quantity and severity. There were 66 bills introduced in 2021, while in January 2022 alone there were more than 70. A lot of the original "white discomfort" bills in 2021 drew from ALEC's December 2020 workshop and focused on things like "divisive concepts," "discomfort" or race and sex stereotyping. That was the template for those bills, and as a result, a lot of them were very vague in terms of what they would prohibit, but they definitely had a severe chilling effect. 

With the election of Glenn Youngkin in Virginia, politicians began to see they might fulfill their ambitions for higher office by riding this anti-CRT train. It spawned a race to the bottom with more extreme bills in 2022, which, in addition to targeting CRT and prohibiting teaching about systemic racism or sexism, sometimes also target higher education. In 2021, only Idaho, Iowa and Oklahoma did that; now there are over 20 states with pending legislation targeting higher education. 

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The 2022 legislation also includes a lot more mandatory punishment. Oklahoma's pending bill gives parents the right to object to any book in a public school library. If that book isn't removed within 30 days, the librarian must be fired and cannot be rehired for two years and the complainant is eligible for $10,000 a day in damages until the book is removed. In Wisconsin, there are monetary damages up to $50,000. It's obvious these measures are designed to cripple public education. 

You also see private causes of actions that follow from the Texas anti-abortion bill, where you give parents and individuals the ability to sue teachers and school districts. That led to the phenomenon of Moms for Liberty essentially putting a bounty on teachers' heads, offering $500 for whoever could turn up the first violation of the New Hampshire gag order. 

We also see the scope going beyond race and gender to the "Don't Say Gay" bills, which in Florida were so egregious that their proponents had to pull back their proposal for mandatory outing — that if an administrator, teacher or even a student reported another student was not heterosexual, that information would have to be reported to the parents within six weeks. 

These are the surveillance states being set up to monitor teachers and chill the environment for free inquiry and critical discussion, with the overall purpose of undermining public education and multiracial democracy. 

Can you talk more about how these attacks add up to an assault on public education as a system? 

The conservative think tanks that have promulgated this entire disinformation campaign — like Christopher Rufo's work with the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation — have made clear their attempts to undermine public education through vouchers, charter schools and opposition to teachers' unions. In November, just after the Virginia elections, Rufo bragged about his success to New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg, saying, "We are right now preparing a strategy of laying siege" to these "public schools [that] are waging war against American children and American families." In response, he proposed using the traditional school choice agenda of private school vouchers, charter schools and homeschooling to combat this existential threat he perceived. 

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So you don't have to take my word for it. The architect of this entire campaign, who's also been clear that he doesn't know what CRT is and doesn't care, is simply trying to put all the "cultural insanities" under one brand to render it toxic. 

Considering AAPF founder Kimberlé Crenshaw's role in creating the CRT framework, what is it like, as an organization, to be at the center of this storm? 

It's like ground zero. On the other hand, it's quite a testament to the power of the work and the persuasive function it's had around the world, among very diverse audiences, especially young people. And I think that is the threat, because this is within the pattern of backlash that we've seen since Reconstruction whenever there is racial reform. 

AAPF's Truth Be Told campaign is primarily concerned about the long-term effects of this backlash on the broad ability to research, teach, talk and think about race, gender and social justice issues, due to this coordinated campaign to undermine the public's belief in public education, multiracial democracy and intersectional justice. Kimberlé Crenshaw is concerned that this current backlash, like the one following Reconstruction, will endure for not just a season, but a century. 

Can you talk about how the campaigns targeting schools have expanded, from teaching about racial discrimination, to book bans, to proposals that schools actually out their LGBTQ students?

It does seem mind-boggling. When you read the UT resolution, it's very modest, simply saying, "Let's support the principles of academic freedom and the right of faculty to teach CRT and about race and gender justice." Why would that prompt the unhinged outburst by Lt. Gov. Patrick, saying he wants to fire any critical race scholar in Texas and then remove tenure for all new hires?

But I think you have to go back to a quarter century ago, when George H.W. Bush accepted his party's nomination in 1988, and announced that he would be campaigning on the theme of a  "kinder and gentler" America, perhaps recognizing a need to be more inclusive amid the changing demographics of America. This was back when we had real voting rights, of course. And so now, when you fast-forward to the evisceration of voting rights and the rise of white nationalism under Trump, we see that strategy has dramatically changed. It's no longer about accepting the promise of a multiracial democracy. It's quite the opposite. 

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It's a very cynical attempt to win back the white suburban vote — the white women who may have marched against the murder of George Floyd — with this manufactured "parental rights," "your child is being branded a racist" campaign. I think it started there, to reach into the darkest fears politicians thought they could take advantage of, but it was always intended to grow larger.

How did AAPF's model resolution for college faculty come about, and what role are these resolutions playing? 

All along, the Truth Be Told campaign has made very clear that we don't think the goal is simply to defend against these negative things, but to proactively stand up for a robust vision of what multiracial democracy means and requires. We don't simply want to push back against these bills, but to create dynamic learning environments for all of our children. 

That's the province of faculty, that through their research and scholarship, they need to be the primary unit involved in curriculum, and administrations have to support that. Almost all of them do. So this is a proactive campaign we developed, thinking about the foundations of higher education being grounded in academic freedom and using it to say, that must be respected, whether you agree with or teach CRT or not.

That's what the campaign was about: providing a template for faculty to be able to say as a unit, "This is important. We see this important principle on which higher ed is being breached currently by outside forces, and we call upon our administrations to defend this important principle." 

What has the process been like when it comes to collaborating with these schools? 

After we held a 2021 CRT summer school, we drafted an open letter notifying people about this campaign and our template for defending academic freedom. We posted the template, and various suggestions and tools people could use, on our website. We have tireless faculty working out of our Truth Be Told education working group, like Jennifer Ruth at Portland State, Valerie Johnson at DePaul University, Emily Houh at University of Cincinnati, and Ellen Schrecker, the foremost expert on McCarthyism, who believes we are now witnessing the new McCarthyism. We had a strategy of reaching out to every public university flagship in the 50 states and hoped it would ripple out from there, which it has. We just heard today that UC Riverside passed the resolution. 

But governance is a process, and you need to introduce things. At UT Austin, it had to go through three separate committees. So it can be a months-long process. We launched this back in the beginning of the school year, and it's just now beginning to bear fruit. We do believe that it will bear further fruit, especially after all of the national publicity around Lt. Gov. Patrick's unhinged reaction. 

I've heard from faculty at other schools trying to introduce resolutions like this who are frustrated by the slowness of the process, at a time that seems to call for more urgency.

Faculty are notoriously bad at the resolution process because of the endless nuance they attach to every single word. Given this tendency, it's even more impressive that nearly two dozen academic senate faculties have considered and debated these issues before passing these resolutions, typically by an overwhelming margin.

That's also why we offered a template, knowing a lot of common questions would come up and giving people a starting place, but inviting them to modify it according to their own institutional needs and history. We welcome whenever people do modify it, like the University of Alabama did. But yes, it does seem as though there is a wildfire, and many people in higher ed haven't quite noticed that it's actually at their doorstep. 

The long game of these conservative think tanks that are intent on eliminating public education, not only at the K-12 level but also in higher ed, implicates and reaches all of us. And we need to be as on top of it and as coordinated as ALEC was back in December 2020, when they held their anti-CRT seminar for state legislators. 

The expansion of these attacks to higher education seems surprising, given how much of the rationale for the K-12 bills and laws was protecting impressionable children from "indoctrination." 

I think that that speaks to this race to the bottom, with the meaner and more extreme versions of these various bills in 2022, just to make a national name for oneself. But it does leave the proponents unprepared for scrutiny, as the Indiana sponsor found out when his bill essentially demanding a both-sides approach to teaching about Nazism was properly ridiculed. 

I think we're seeing people who don't know anything about CRT, don't know anything about academic freedom or free speech, and don't know anything about higher education writing these bills filled with contradictions and incoherencies. They can't even answer for what they're putting in their bills, like still sticking with the "parental rights" language they used to power the K-12 legislation without realizing that, in higher ed, you're talking about young adults who are supposed to be their own creators of knowledge. 

If we're facing a new McCarthyism, how do people fight back? 

The new McCarthyism is not unlike the old McCarthyism, where you just blend something with ad hominem, and freeze the conversation by putting it into this negative category you hope people won't touch. I think by engaging history — what happened then, what was wrong with it and what we don't want to repeat — those are exactly the sort of lessons we are undertaking with CRT. We look at the problems, the mistakes we've made in the past as a country in terms of structural subordination, unfairness and the ways in which even in an allegedly colorblind society with civil rights laws we are still reproducing rampant, visible and durable inequalities. And if we want to change that, we have to get to the essence of the analysis. That's what these bills are trying to prevent.

As a parent with two kids currently in college — at USC, of all places — it strikes me that the politicians and parents behind this closing of the American mind are doing just as big of a disservice to their young people as the parents arrested under Operation Varsity Blues. If you read about the children involved in those scandals, they're angry at their parents for not believing in them. In a similar way, I think that people undertaking these actions are also doing a disservice to their young adults by taking away their ability to engage in the very conversations that students from every neighborhood, of every race, religion and background, desperately want to engage in. They understand the challenges of living in a multiracial society and are very hungry for these conversations, whether they agree with all the conclusions or not. 

The politicians claiming they know what's best for students and even parents taking up the mantle are in for a rude surprise: These efforts are really not appreciated by their own students. 


Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce is an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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