The push by Republican state legislatures to restrict or ban the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) and its intellectual progeny has met with a number of arguments, ranging from denial that CRT exists or is taught in schools to critiques of the specific language of anti-CRT bills. To some anti-anti-CRT critics, especially among current or former conservatives, there are also structural arguments against the entire project. I have written previously about one of those arguments: the contention that dictating what is taught in public schools run by the government is none of the government’s business.
Fine, say the anti-anti-CRT crowd; maybe CRT is bad and should be kept out of schools. But it still should not be the job of state legislatures. State laws, they say, have two problems.
First, they do too much. Some of the bills are heavy-handed, taking a sledgehammer to curricular decisions that can be more finely tuned by reworking curricula themselves at the state or local level, or by taking control of local school boards. Some argue that this is not just a matter of poor draftsmanship but of the inherent difficulty in writing laws to pin down an ideology that is itself somewhat protean. Some also argue that conservatives on principle should dislike state-level mandates almost as much as they dislike federal mandates (remember the long battle over Common Core?) and should recognize the diversity of local community standards by getting states out of the picture.
Some contend that the best way to protect students from CRT-based lessons that actively target individual students on the basis of their race, or that preach doctrines such as “white fragility” that are actively hostile to a race, is to file federal civil-rights lawsuits. The first major, high-profile example of such a suit was recently filed in Evanston, Ill., following a finding by the Department of Education against the Evanston/Skokie school district. Then again, that finding was retracted by the Biden administration, which will not be eager to lend support to such suits.
These are not entirely misguided criticisms, and in some cases, they are offered in good faith. But they misunderstand both the nature of laws and the nature of political movements.
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