Critical race theory is not the reason the legislative majority enacted HB3979, the new anti-education law, despite what Gov. Greg Abbott and the law’s other supporters claim. The law’s real purpose is broader and more sinister.
Critical race theory is an intellectual belief, which has been around for a long time, holding that the law and legal institutions in this country are inherently racist in the sense that they function to maintain social, economic and political inequalities between white people and people of color, particularly Black Americans. People who subscribe to this theory say it explains why racial inequalities still exist long after civil rights laws and court rulings outlawed discrimination.
Critical race theory is not a political agenda, and it is not taught in Texas public schools.
HB3979, however, is the product of a national, right-wing political agenda, and its real purpose is to intimidate teachers into whitewashing the racism that has plagued our nation’s history and downplaying the results of racism today. These results include, but are not limited to, inequities in funding our public schools and the abuse by police of many Americans, often with fatal consequences, for the alleged “crime” of being Black. These realities make many people, including our governor, uncomfortable, but they must be addressed, not ignored.
This effort to whitewash history became a priority of then-President Donald Trump after The New York Times published its “1619 Project,” which shined a strong light on the role that slavery played in the founding of our country and slavery’s lasting impact on the systemic racism that was to lead, a few months later, to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, under the knee of a white police officer.
Floyd’s death precipitated angry protests throughout the country by the Black Lives Matter movement and Americans of all colors. The vast majority of demonstrators were peaceful. But a few opportunists resorted to violence, and Trump, seeking reelection, focused on them as he pushed back, portraying himself as the “law and order” candidate and ignoring the tragedy of racism.
Trump attacked The New York Times slavery project and started talking up the creation of a “1776 Commission” to counter what he falsely claimed were efforts to divide Americans on race and teach children to “hate their own country.” And he – one of the most divisive presidents in American history — started using critical race theory, which I doubt he even understands, as a partisan lightning rod.
In a final campaign gesture to the ignorance and prejudices among his core supporters, Trump issued an executive order on the day before Election Day, creating the “1776 Commission” to promote “patriotic education” and counter historical accounts that he said had “vilified” the nation’s founders, many of whom were slave-owners.
President Biden promptly abolished the commission after taking office, but the idea lives on in many Republican-leaning states, where allegiance to – or fear of — Trump remains strong. In Texas, it has taken the form of HB3979 and HB2497, another new law that Abbott recently signed to create the “Texas 1836 Project.” This second law creates a nine-member committee charged with increasing awareness of the state’s history, including its independence from Mexico in 1836, and promote what the governor and Trump call “patriotic education.”
The panel will be responsible for helping state agencies ensure that the 1836 message is provided to visitors to state parks, museums, battlefields and other landmarks. The law’s language tracks language in Trump’s now-defunct order for the “1776 Commission” to ensure that a “patriotic education” would be offered to the public.
It is not clear that the 1836 message of independence that Abbott wants conveyed will include the fact that the preservation of slavery was one of the reasons the Texas colonists revolted against Mexico, which prohibited the practice.
So far, it doesn’t look as if HB2497 will directly affect Texas’ public schools, but HB3979 will.
By whitewashing history, limiting classroom discussions about current events and discouraging student participation in political activities, HB3979 will impede the development of the critical learning skills so important for a young person’s future success. And it threatens to leave the next generation of Texans poorly informed about the reasons for the racial inequities that still plague their state and country and poorly prepared to address them.
Gov. Abbott says he wants the Legislature to continue to address critical race theory in a special session he intends to call later this year. That probably means he has ideas for making the new law even worse. The only remaining thing the Legislature should do with this law is repeal it.