Legislators in Iowa, Mississippi and Arkansas have introduced bills that would ban schools from teaching The New York Times‘ “1619 Project.” These proposals have not been signed into law—nor should they be. Not because they are a step too far, but because they don’t go far enough.
An ocean of ink has been spilled on 1619’s willful lies and partisan perversions. But the deeper issue is not whether schools should be allowed to teach inaccurate history. It’s whether states should permit schools to teach curricula motivated by racial hatred.
Let’s do a little thought experiment. Imagine that 1619’s architect, Nikole Hannah-Jones, were a white male with a generic white male name like, let’s say, “Richard Spencer.” This hypothetical Richard Spencer has never made his views about black people a secret. He’s written that “the [black] race is the biggest murderer, rapist, pillager and thief in the modern world,” and has quoted approvingly from 19th-century sources declaring that “[blacks] have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and bloodthirsty set of beings.” Then imagine that Spencer teamed up with a newspaper owned by a (Russian) oligarch to create school curricula whose deepest purpose, he publicly admitted, was to “get [black] Americans to stop being [black].”
This hypothetical Richard Spencer would all but assuredly be the subject of an FBIinvestigation for domestic extremism. But Nikole Hannah-Jones said all of those things verbatim—substituting “white” for “black,” of course—and was handed a Pulitzer Prize.
The answer is rooted in the ideology behind the 1619 Project, “critical race theory” (CRT). According to Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, CRT is “unlike traditional civil rights discourse” in that it “questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism and neutral principles of constitutional law.” In its applied political form, popularized most notably as “anti-racism” by Ibram X. Kendi, CRT holds that racist discrimination against whites is a positive social good. (Kendi: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”)
The American elite’s endorsement of this racist creed is why Hannah-Jones is celebrated, rather than reviled. And it is why banning 1619 is like using a Band-Aid to treat leukemia.
Instead of targeting a particular lesson plan, states should—as legislators in a handful of states have proposed, and as Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently promised—prohibit CRT indoctrination altogether.NEWSWEEK SUBSCRIPTION OFFERS >
This idea is not yet broadly accepted, even among conservatives. New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu has promised to veto a bill banning CRT in schools, complainingthat it is a “free speech” restriction. In National Review Online, Samantha Harris has declared that state legislatures should not turn to “censorship.”
Both of these criticisms are deeply off-point.
As a matter of law, “free speech” First Amendment arguments do not apply to teachers. The Supreme Court has recognized that a state has “a constitutional right to protect the immature minds of children in its public schools from subversive propaganda, subtle or otherwise, disseminated by those ‘to whom they look for guidance, authority and leadership.'”
And whereas proposals to ban particular lesson plans could constitute “censorship,” legislative initiatives to combat CRT take primary aim at its already-illegal prerequisites: race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating. The bill introduced last week by the Texas state legislature declared that schools shall not teach that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex…[or that] an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”
No teacher today is free to say things like “black students are savages and therefore I decenter, disrupt and dismantle blackness.” Such abhorrent bigotry is already illegal under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act. Only by abandoning Enlightenment rationalism and the avowed neutral principles of the rule of law—as CRT affirmatively encourages its adherents to do—could one argue that stopping what’s obviously “illegal discrimination” when applied to one race becomes “un-American censorship” when another race is the target instead.
In theory, then, these state laws should be superfluous and redundant. But in reality, they are essential.
On his first day in office, President Biden rescinded the Trump administration’s executive order prohibiting government employee and contractor trainings that traffic in racial stereotyping and scapegoating. The Biden Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) unlisted a YouTube video making it clear that schools may not segregate students by race or advocate that “a particular race is collectively guilty of misconduct or is negative or evil.”
What’s more, Biden’s OCR suspended a recent finding that a school district in Illinois violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act when it segregated students and staff, endorsed racially charged messages and directed teachers to treat students differently based on their race.
This should obviously be illegal. But, consistent with the tenets of CRT, the Biden administration has signaled that it will not enforce federal civil rights law in schools when racist discrimination is targeted at white or Asian students.
Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 because it had become clear that some states would not extend equal protection to all citizens. Now that the federal government is abandoning traditional civil rights enforcement, states must pass new laws that assume the enforcement power to protect the rights of all schoolchildren.
CRT indoctrination cannot occur without recourse to racist tropes. Racial stereotyping and scapegoating should have no place in American public schools. But it may soon become the norm unless state legislatures act to protect the preeminent principle of human equality.