Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that prohibits Texas’ public-school teachers from discussing topics related to critical race theory in the classroom.
Specifically, the new law, which takes effect on Sept. 1, bans teachers from being “compelled” to teach and discuss a “current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs” relating to race or racism in the United States.
The law prohibits discussions that a person “by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that a person bears responsibility for past actions of their race.
The new law mandates that specific historical texts must be included in the social studies curriculum of Texas’ public schools. These include excerpts from Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” writings of Frederick Douglass, Chicano literature, essays authored by the Founding Fathers, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech.
Critics of the new law contend that it “whitewashes history” by failing to focus on the United States’ history of slavery, the spawning of the Ku Klux Klan as a force in post-Reconstruction history and the evils of the Jim Crow laws. From the 1870s through the 1950s, Texas enacted laws that formally separated the races, from requiring separate railroad cars for African-Americans, to poll taxes, to segregating public schools.
Critical race theory is a construct that does not originate with the teaching of history but is rooted in the practice of law. Its proponents believe that the legacy of slavery is embedded in American society and culture to such an extent that African-Americans have suffered and continue to suffer long-term, systemic financial harm due to historic race prejudice.
American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten and other professional educators have noted that limiting instruction in public classrooms is dangerous because “teaching America’s true history doesn’t teach kids to hate each other — it actually informs them, encourages them to think critically, inspires them to embrace tolerance and allows them to be more engaged stewards of our multiracial, multiethnic society.”
AFT Secretary-Treasurer Frederick Ingram said, “The reality is that deep-rooted racism in this country began long before 1776 and continues to touch nearly every aspect of everyday life for black and brown Americans. It would be a disservice to the entire nation to deny children the opportunity to learn the real and often dark past of this country.”
The new law is squarely at odds with another bill that Governor Abbott signed in June adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism. That statute defines antisemitism as “a certain perception of Jews which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews.” The legislature has also established the Texas Holocaust and Genocide Remembrance Commission and Holocaust Remembrance Week that is a launching point for studying the Holocaust in Texas’ public schools.
It is commendable that Governor Abbott and the Legislature formally recognize the horrors of the Holocaust and genocide. But, the new law restricting classroom discussions belies the undeniable truth that genocide sadly flourishes in today’s world. Genocide is a fact of life that must be grappled with in the modern era. Unspeakable slaughter in the Darfur region of western Sudan has resulted in more than 400,000 people dying there since 2003 due to violence, pestilence and starvation. President George W. Bush, to his credit, labeled this atrocity as “near hell on earth.”
Nor should Texas classrooms skip learning about genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina which emanated from conflict between three main ethnic groups — Serbs, Croats and Muslims. In 1992, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic’s response to the substantially Muslim Bosnia’s declaration of independence was a sustained campaign of “ethnic cleansing” which resulted in deportation of Muslim boys and men to concentration camps and officially-sanctioned rape of Muslim women and girls. More than 200,000 Muslim civilians were butchered at the direction of Milosevic and more than 2 million Bosnians became refugees in a campaign of systematic genocide.
Of course, the meaningful teaching of modern history must include study of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot’s reign of terror. From 1975 through 1979, the Khmer Rouge political party that he led liquidated approximately 2 million Cambodians in a sorely misguided effort to form a Communist peasant farming society. Inspired by the teachings of Mao Zedong’s Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot sought to “purify” Cambodia of Western influences.
Mao himself presided over the starvation of 27 million Chinese in his so-called Great Leap Forward. In his effort to “reeducate” Chinese peasants, Mao destroyed the existing agricultural system and massive famine resulted.
The Jerusalem Post recently explained that efforts by state legislatures to ban critical race theory as a teaching tool poses a serious challenge to teaching Jewish history.
While Texas’ establishment of a Holocaust commission is laudable, throughout history Jews have been subjected to systemic antisemitism closely aligned to the underlying premises of critical race theory. Any study of world history must include the Roman Empire’s subjugation of Jews, the pogroms perpetrated by Tsarist Russia, degradation of Jews taught by the Catholic Church until recent times, the Dreyfus Affair, and the lynching of Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915.
Free and unfettered discussion of history and current events fosters education and the ideals of citizenship: the value of fact-based teaching and vigorous debate of current events, coupled with respect for opposing points of view.
Sadly, Governor Abbott has called for additional legislation restricting critical race theory as an educational tool.
Restricting public school teachers from inculcating a deep understanding of historical and current events is the antithesis of sparking curiosity in public school students. Only free and open inquiry and debate will lead today’s public school students toward fulfilling their future obligations as responsible public citizens.
A version of this editorial appeared in the July 15, 2021, issue of the Jewish Herald-Voice of Houston. Reprinted with permission.