Banning ideas and authors is not a ‘culture war’ – it’s fascism | Jason Stanley

A wave of Republican enthusiasm for banning concepts, authors and books is sweeping across the United States. Forty-four states have proposed bans on the teaching of “divisive concepts”, and 18 states have passed them.

Florida’s Stop Woke Act bans the teaching of eight categories of concepts, including concepts that suggest that “a person, by virtue of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin, bears personal responsibility for and must feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions, in which the person played no part, committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin, or sex”. Many of the laws also target Nikole Hannah-Jones’s influential 1619 Project.

These laws have already started to take effect. Administrators and teachers have been forced out of their positions on the suspicion of violating these laws, and what has started as a trickle may soon become a flood.

In January, Florida’s board of education banned AP African American studie, on the grounds that it included concepts forbidden by Governor Ron DeSantis’s law, including critical race theory and intersectionality, as well as authors such as Kimberlé Crenshaw, bell hooks, Roderick Ferguson, Angela Davis and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The College Board chose to remove these authors and subjects from its curriculum, claiming, as it turns out dubiously, that it did so independently of Florida’s pressure.

These laws have been represented by many as a “culture war”. This framing is a dangerous falsification of reality. A culture war is a conflict of values between different groups. In a diverse, pluralistic democracy, one should expect frequent conflicts. Yet laws criminalizing educators’ speech are no such thing – unlike a culture war, the GOP’s recent turn has no place in a democracy. To understand why, consider their consequences.

The concepts these laws centrally target include addressing structural racism, intersectionality and critical race theory.

Structural racism is the view that certain persisting structures and practices have resulted in unjust racial outcomes, for example the American racial wealth gap, where Black Americans have 10% of the wealth of white Americans.

portrait of hannah-jones
Many of the laws target Nikole Hannah-Jones’s influential 1619 Project. Photograph: John Minchillo/AP

In a celebrated essay for the Atlantic, Coates – one of the banned authors – investigated banking and mortgage practices of redlining and lending that left Black Americans for generations unable to acquire wealth through purchasing homes.

Intersectionality, introduced by Kimberlé Crenshaw in widely cited and impactful work, is the concept that certain groups are at the intersection of multiple oppressions – for example, Black women face discrimination not just for their race but also for their gender (and that such discrimination takes its own unique form).

Finally, critical race theory is, in essence, the study of these concepts: the ways practices in various domains – in housing, schooling, banking, policing, and the criminal legal system – entrench persisting racial disparities and inequalities (such as the racial wealth gap, or segregated schools), even when there is no individual racist intent.

The laws are manifestly incoherent. The failure to teach about structural racism will make Black children born into poverty feel that their parents and grandparents are responsible for their own impoverished position relative to white children, and so will make Black children feel “anguish or other forms of psychological distress” because of “actions … committed in the past by other members of the same race”. The “anguish” and “psychological distress” these laws forbid are only anguish felt by the dominant racial group, white Americans.

In other national contexts, everyone would clearly recognize the problematic nature of laws of this sort. Germany’s teaching of its Nazi past creates clear anguish and guilt in German children (and perhaps for this reason, Germany is the world’s most stable liberal democracy). If the German far right passed laws forbidding schools from teaching about the sins of Nazism, on the grounds that such teaching does in fact quite obviously cause anguish and guilt in German children, the world would not stand for it for one moment. Even Israel’s far-right government strenuously objected when Poland drafted a law that would make it illegal to suggest that Poland had any responsibility for Nazi atrocities on its soil. Why isn’t there greater outcry when such laws are passed to protect the innocence of white Americans?

It is frequently claimed by proponents of such laws that banning discussion of structural racism and intersectionality is freeing schools of indoctrination. And yet indoctrination rarely takes place by allowing the free flow of ideas. Indoctrination instead rather takes places by banning ideas. Celebrating the banning of authors and concepts as “freedom from indoctrination” is as Orwellian as politics gets.

rabbi kneels to speak to kids
Rabbi Walter Rotschild speaks to schoolchildren attending the unveiling of a memorial of tiles dedicated to Jewish children who died in the Holocaust at a primary school in Cottbus, Germany, in 2019. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Getty Images

So what is the ultimate goal of these bans? In the first instance, these laws are there to protect white innocence – that is why they are so popular with many white parents, who carry their own burdens of guilt (similar laws would be popular with many Germans, for the same reason). But there are deeper and more problematic aims of these laws.

Democracy involves informed decision-making about policy. These laws are intended to render such deliberation impossible when it comes to minority groups. The United States suffers from immense racial disparities, which result in periodic outbreaks of political protest. Without an understanding of the structural factors that keep schools and cities segregated, and certain populations impoverished, Americans will not be able to react to these outbreaks with understanding – they will find them befuddling. These laws eliminate the knowledge and understanding required to react democratically to Black political protest to structural injustice.

The authors targeted by these laws do not just theorize about problematic structures – their work is also essential for understanding solutions. For example, Roderick Ferguson writes about social movements for liberation, including student movements. These laws make it illegal to teach students about the history and strategy of social movements targeting structural injustice. More generally, these laws make it illegal to teach students about how to form social movements to challenge dominant interests and structures.

Most frighteningly, these laws are meant to intimidate educators, to punish them for speaking freely by threatening their jobs, their teaching licenses, and more. The passing of these laws signals the dawn of a new authoritarian age in the United States, where the state uses laws restricting speech to intimidate, bully and punish educators, forcing them to submit to the ideology of the dominant majority or lose their livelihoods, and even their freedom.

It is clear that the chief agenda of the GOP is to advance a set of speech laws that criminalize discussion in schools of anything but the white heterosexual majority’s perspective. The media’s portrayal of these laws as moves in the “culture wars” is an unconscionable misrepresentation of fascism.

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