Panicked white people also tried to ban books in the 80s – with Jerry Falwell leading the way
This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. It was originally published by The conversation.
A Conservative leader blamed the way “respect for our nation’s heritage” had been largely removed from public school textbooks.
“From kindergarten to the whole school system, it almost seems that textbooks are designed to deny the philosophies previously taught,” lamented the conservative leader. “[M]all textbooks are actually perverting the minds of millions of students.
A teachers’ organization hit back, saying the underlying motive for some attacks on the books was “unmistakably racial”.
It may look like a recent back and forth debates over the removal of books classrooms and libraries. Often, critical race theory – an academic framework for understanding racism – has been at the center of these debates. But in reality, both quotes are over 40 years old.
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Religious influence on politics
The first quote is from a 1981 book by Reverend Jerry Falwell titled “Listen, America!» Falwell, founder of the Moral Majoritywas one of the leaders of the 1980s book banning efforts. It was during this period – with Ronald Reagan in the White House – that Christian fundamentalists became growing influence in American conservative politics.
The second quote is from a 1981 publication by the National Council of Teachers of English, “Students’ right to read.” The council was one of the main groups opposed to Falwell and the other Tories.
the attacks on books in the 1980s bear similarities to current attacks. Both oppose critical teaching about race and racism, historical as well as contemporary. Both accuse the schools of tearing America down and weakening patriotism. Both oppose teaching about gender roles, sexual orientation and alternative models of the family. Conservative institutions like the Heritage Foundation were involved in both periods.
There are also important differences between the two periods. The bogeyman of the 1980s was secular humanism, because he argued that human beings can define their own morality without resorting to religion. Falwell and others claimed that public schools were anti-Christian because they taught students that they did not have to use the Bible as a standard for right and wrong. Chaos would result, Christian fundamentalists argued, if everyone had to determine their own morality.
In a way reminiscent of the so-called Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, conservatives objected to teaching evolution as a fact, rather than a theory. Instead, they wanted biology textbooks to give equal space to the so-called scientific theory of creationismwhich holds that God created the universe.
A new bogeyman
In 2022, of course, the bogeyman is critical race theory. emerge from critical legal theory taught in law schools, critical race theory argues that white supremacy was integrated in American legal and educational institutions since the days of slavery.
Right-wing critics have made a number of erroneous claims about critical race theory: that it is taught in public schools; this it’s marxist; that’s all intended to make white people feel guilty; and more. The Heritage Foundation published “How to Identify Critical Race Theoryas a guide to help parents evaluate books and programs by searching for words like “systemic racism,” “white privilege,” and “social construction or race.”
In fact, these concepts predate critical race theory, which emerged on the scene in the late 1970s and 1980s. Activist Stokely Carmichael – also known as Kwame Ture – and political scientist Charles V. Hamilton discussed institutional racism in “Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America” in 1967. “Institutional racism” and “structural racism” are very similar to “systemic racism”.
“white privilegewas discussed by WEB Du Bois in the early 20th century and by civil rights activists in the 1950s and 1960s. Another term associated with critical race theory, “the social construction of racehas been used by anthropologists such as Francois Boas back to the 1950s.
Critical race theorists have taken these and other concepts, reinterpreted them, and applied them to the American legal system. Educational researchers have done the same in trying to understand education as an institution. After Over 40 years of teaching and writing about race and diversity, I know it is impossible to accurately discuss the American race conflict without using these concepts. But that’s what many lawmakers would like American educators to do.
According to a Pen America Report, a nonprofit that champions freedom of expression in literature, 156 “educational gag” bills in 39 states have been filed since January 2021. Twelve have become law in 10 states and 113 are pending. in 35 states. In March 2022, at minus seven states specifically ban the teaching of critical race theory. “Cumulatively,” says the Pen report, “they represent a national attack on our education system, censoring both what teachers can say and what students can learn.”
Of course, some white students—and other students, for that matter—will feel uncomfortable learning not just about the history of American racism, but about its current manifestations. Reality is sometimes uncomfortable.
This is where good teaching comes in. Good teaching means taking into account the age of the students. It also means supporting students who may feel uncomfortable or guilty about certain events in American history.
I always say to students, “You are not responsible for what happened in the past. You are responsible for deciding what you plan to do now and in the future.