US academia defends critical race theory amid political onslaught

Professors and institutions admit worry as at least 20 US states move to block curricula exploring systemic biases

June 16, 2021
Racial injustice protesters
Source: iStock

A group of more than 60 associations representing academic societies and universities has opposed moves in at least 20 US states to block curricula that teach students about the nation’s history of racial inequity.

The groups expressed alarm over politicians’ expressions of intolerance both for open discussions of the nation’s racial history and, more generally, for the ability of professional educators to make academic judgements.

“Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today,” wrote the groups, which include the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), with more than 1,200 member institutions.

Along with the AAC&U, the groups organising the statement were the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the American Historical Association (AHA) and the professional writers’ association PEN America.

Other signatories include representatives of historians, diversity advocates and dozens of field-specific scholarly associations.

They are battling a movement reanimated last year by Donald Trump, who as US president was alarmed to discover that universities and schools, as well as government agencies, were teaching their students and employees about the continuing role of racism in the country’s history.

The academic approach is often known as “critical race theory”, which identifies the ways that long-standing policies and practices often have racially biased outcomes.

Mr Trump ordered steps to block such thinking and teaching by threatening a cut of federal funding for institutions that did not comply. Such an effort was widely understood to violate the US Constitution, although many politicians at the state level have tried to duplicate Mr Trump’s tactic, recognising its appeal to large swathes of voters.

Conservative activists also have been working to deluge university professors and teachers at school level with protests about the matter. Some have encouraged students to report teachers who promote critical race theory.

“Their positions are incredibly hostile to white people, Western civilisation, classical liberalism, the enlightenment, the founding of America, and capitalism,” according to one such activist group, the 1776 Project.

Mr Trump created a similarly themed “1776 Commission” that issued a report to promote the idea of what he regarded as a “patriotic education”. Academic historians pointed out a litany of falsehoods and partisan assertions in the analysis.

The AAUP and other associations that produced the letter of protest were motivated by the speed with which they saw state lawmakers embrace the idea of prohibiting discussions of racial equity, said the AAUP’s president, Irene Mulvey.

“It’s just a cynical attempt to direct and twist the national conversation,” Professor Mulvey, a professor of mathematics at Fairfield University, said of the censorship campaigns. “It’s twisting education for partisan gains and demonising certain academic subjects.”

The campaigns against teaching about racial equity also reflect a growing split in the US business community, which often calls publicly for a diverse and tolerant workforce while funding many of the same political leaders who push academics to censor such ideas.

Professor Mulvey said US business leaders, on balance, did not seem as committed to open enquiry as they might suggest. “I’ve never been sure that the business community was much of a friend of higher ed,” she said. “I often think they want to turn higher ed into job training, and not for education of the common good, necessarily.”

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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