The professor who is a leading voice on critical race theory has warned that the rightwing battle against racial justice education not only threatens US democracy, but encourages a revival of segregationist values and policies.
Kimberlé Crenshaw is among top American academics and authors recently stripped from the latest draft of the advanced placement (AP) African American studies course being piloted in US high schools, after Florida’s rightwing governor, Ron DeSantis, led an aggressive backlash against it.
The Columbia University and UCLA law professor and co-founder of the African American Policy Forum thinktank, believes that the escalations against racial history teaching, in Florida and elsewhere represent “the tip of the iceberg” of rightwing efforts to retract the progress since the civil rights era and push America towards authoritarianism.
“Are [schools] on the side of the neo-segregationist faction? Or are [they] going to stick with the commitments that we’ve all celebrated for the last 50, 60 years?” Crenshaw asked, referring to headway made on equal opportunities since the 1960s.
“The College Board fiasco, I think, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are a lot of interests that have to make this decision,” she said.
The College Board, the organization that administers college readiness exams and AP courses for high schoolers to earn college credits, denied bending to political pressure amid accusations that the curriculum has been watered down.
But in what many viewed as a response to DeSantis’s ban, the work of Crenshaw and other high-profile progressive Black figures, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, were relegated from required reading to “optional” within the course.
Several topics, including intersectionality, queer studies and the Black Lives Matters movement, were downgraded. The new version of the course now suggests Black conservatism as a research project idea.
DeSantis, who will probably run for president in 2024, claimed the course violated state law and “lacks educational value”.
Even apart from outrage at states moving to ban the course outright, if the edited version ends up being the course’s final form when it is set to launch fully in 2024, Crenshaw cautions that states teaching the significantly pared-down version will see its students earning the same credits as those studying the fuller version that includes the kind of contemporary and intersectional material she views as vital.
Making such core topics optional “is exactly the same structure of segregation”, she said. “It’s like ‘we’re going to create this so that the anti-woke [camp] will permit states to decide whether they want the segregated version, or whether they want a more fully representative and inclusive version,’” said Crenshaw.
Crenshaw is widely known for her activism and scholarship on two essential schools of thought on anti-Black racism. She is a trailblazer in critical race theory, which explores the persistence of systemic racism in US legal institutions, pioneered by law professor Derrick Bell. And she coined the term intersectionality, in 1989, describing how different identities such as race, gender and sexuality cut across each other and overlap.
And from the previous draft last fall to the current version of the AP course, the key word “systemic” disappeared entirely and the word “intersectionality” went from several to a lone mention.
Crenshaw said that the “frightening” choice in the new AP course to make contemporary lessons optional follows a similar logic to how corporations navigated Jim Crow segregation.
Crenshaw noted that Donald Trump and the right’s Make America Great Again (Maga) extremism is directly linked to the College Board’s decision – and further back to strategies used during decades of racial segregation laws that prevailed from post-Reconstruction to the 1960s.
“One of the truly, bone-chillingly frightening things about the aspiration to ‘make America great again’ that’s amplified by what’s happening with the College Board is that one of the most sustained features of segregation in the past was the fact that businesses were not only enablers, they facilitated segregation,” she said, driven by the profit motive and the white supremacy movement.
“So when businesses and segregation were aligned, it was a chokehold on Black freedom aspirations,” she said.
Crenshaw spoke to the Guardian from the sunlit living room of her New York home. A nearby desk that Crenshaw calls the “graveyard” is stacked with commonly banned books – books that Crenshaw herself hands out as part of her Books Unbanned tour, such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
She urges a stronger, concerted pushback to this latest manifestation of racist history. “What was brilliant about the civil rights movement is that they really pressured national interests, corporate interests, to break with their policies of simply facilitating segregation in the south,” she said.
Crenshaw believes that the College Board development reflects just one part of a continuous strategy from the right to target and disenfranchise minority groups.
“It’s called ‘make America great again’. So what is it about this America now that this faction finds wanting?” she asked.
“The energy and power structure of the Maga [movement] is really this desire for a time where there isn’t a sense of ‘I have to share this country with people who don’t look like me, [and] what we are born into was never an even playing field,’” she said.
So when the “idea of greatness” harks back to the time of racial tyranny, she noted, far-right forces attempt to forgo the teaching of said history, so that “future generations have no tools, no exposure, no ability to critique the present as a reflection of the past”.
Today’s most influential Republicans have made inclusive education a target and taken the supreme court further to the right, undermining other democratic institutions, as well as playing down the 6 January 2021 insurrection where extremist Trump supporters tried to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory over Trump and some carried Confederate flags inside the US Capitol after breaking in.
In Crenshaw’s view, this is all with the goal of transforming the “decades-long journey towards greater social justice” into what the right admonishes as “wokeness” – which is in fact the encouraging of racial justice and equity.
“Wokeness has become the oppression, not the centuries of enslavement and genocide, and imperialism that has shaped the lives of people of color, in ways that continue into the present,” said Crenshaw.
Crenshaw traces the aggressive disinformation campaigns about critical race theory to a September 2020 executive order passed by then president Donald Trump that restricted federal agencies and contractors from providing diversity and equity training.
“When that happened it was a five star alarm for me. Because if this can happen with the stroke of a pen, it means that our entire infrastructure that we’ve built since Brown [v Board] is weakened,” said Crenshaw, noting the landmark supreme court case that prohibited segregation in US public schools, adding that several elite universities rushed to comply with Trump’s mandate.
Soon after, she became acutely aware that Trump and activist Republicans were twisting the term critical race theory and critiquing Black history taught in schools, or slamming research such as the New York Times’ 1619 project in order to spread moral panic.
“The ban on anti-racism is so profound, that even the story of a kindergarten or first grade integrating an all-white school runs counter to [the new laws],” said Crenshaw, referring to the memoir of activist Ruby Bridges, the first Black child to integrate an elementary school in the American south in 1960.
“So, white kids’ feelings are more important than black kids’ reality.”
She continued: “They got their marching orders and into the school boards they went, and into the legislatures they went.”
She warned: “If parents can be convinced that there is a wrong happening in public schools, they might be convinced to agree to the dismantling of public education across the board.”
Colleges and universities have faced similar assault, Crenshaw noted, as professors are targeted under state laws.
Crenshaw further laments the risks of conservatives’ steady takeover of the supreme court and the dismantling of federal voting rights protection and threat to affirmative action in higher education.
“This court stands poised to really gut the entire civil rights infrastructure that was built by blood, sweat and tears,” said Crenshaw.
Overall, Crenshaw exhorts Democrats and the media to employ much more vigor and urgency in addressing escalating attacks on US institutions, noting that many news outlets frame “the push towards authoritarianism as a [mere] rebrand”.
“It was wishful thinking to believe that once the campaign was over, this was going to go away,” said Crenshaw, referring to the Biden-Harris victory in the 2020 election.
But Crenshaw remains buoyed by hope that the next generation can overcome attempts at retrenchment from the far right: “This is the next generation’s lap to run. And we’ve got to hand them a baton that they can carry.”
In the meantime, Crenshaw says there must be more acknowledgment of what’s at stake.
“At some point, there has to be a recognition that we’re fighting for the soul of the country,” she said.
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