In one breath, he called the new law “a strong move to abolish critical race theory in Texas.” In the next, he shed doubt on its efficacy, saying “more must be done” and declaring he would put the issue on the agenda for a special legislative session.
Abbott’s clear equivocation about the law’s utility is telling, about HB 3979 in particular and “anti-critical race theory” legislation in general.
To start, the bill is vague, perhaps intentionally. It doesn’t identify what critical race theory is in any meaningful way.
Instead, the bill lays out rather robust (and largely unobjectionable) curriculum requirements, including teaching on diverse American figures, such as Ona Judge, Frederick Douglass and Cesar Chavez, and concepts such as the history of white supremacy and eugenics.
It requires that when teachers present and discuss controversial topics, they offer a range of perspectives and give deference to none — something they should be doing already.
The bill then codifies into law existing constitutional protections against compelled speech and discrimination: School districts can’t require teachers and staff to suffer training and orientation like those proposed in Southlake and schools districts all over the country. Training that teaches that “an individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of the individual ’s race or sex” is prohibited.
Some media outlets have reported that the legislation “bans” use of materials from the 1619 Project, The New York Times’ attempt to reframe American history through the lenses of slavery and race. But its language is far more vague, saying instead that districts, schools or instructors may not “require an understanding of The 1619 Project.”
For better or worse, the Texas law doesn’t really live up to its “anti-critical race theory” description, although reporting on the bill’s content and statements from its detractors would have you believe otherwise.
It’s clear Abbott isn’t convinced.
Nor should be anyone disturbed by an ideology that segregates people by race; creates a racial hierarchy in which certain races bear the guilt for past crimes committed by their identity group; and teaches that America is intrinsically, historically and irredeemably racist.
Allowing a way of thinking that Columbia professor John McWhorter calls “willfully blind to the complexity inherent to history” to permeate our public education system would be damaging, racist and dumb, and demands public rebuke by people of all races and creeds.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the blunt instrument of legislation is the best way to address it.
Supporters of these bills in at least a dozen state believe that because public schools are an arm of the state, they are not “marketplaces for free thought” but government-run monopolies. Banning or restricting certain teachings from curricula — which they already do — is legally defensible and entirely necessary.
But even some who oppose the spread of critical race ideology in public schools are chilled by the implied authoritarianism of “banning” certain kinds of speech.
Bad ideas, they argue, are best combated with better ideas, such as teaching America’s triumphs without ignoring its failures and acknowledging that America’s history is rich, nuanced and complex.
Opponents worry, too, that the legal language needed to achieve the bills’ goals is antithetical to the principles of limited government.
The Texas Legislature’s recent experience in trying to craft an “anti-critical race theory” bill that thwarts indoctrination in racial essentialism without restricting free thinking in education illustrates the difficulties. And it portends possible disaster in the special session.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t effective ways to oppose so-called “anti-racism” philosophy.
Last month’s elections in Southlake, in which candidates opposed to racial essentialism swept school board and city council races, show that when parents and communities come together to fight public school curricula that are tantamount to racism, they are wildly successful.
Such successes also suggest that when opposition to damaging ideologies percolates through discussion and engagement, the results are less ambiguous and more meaningful.
And in the fight against racial essentialism, there can be no room for ambiguity. Someone tell the Legislature.