US states’ attacks on critical race theory continue post-Trump

Lawmakers and activists work to forbid talk of enduring inequities

May 6, 2021
Demonstrators stand with tape reading: “ I can’t breathe” to protest police abuse on December 7, 2014 in Miami, Florida.
Source: Getty

Trump-era attacks on the teaching of the role of racism in US history are persisting beyond his administration, with a mix of states and activists working to ban academic discussions of racial inequities.

After a year of renewed attention on US society’s race-based divisions following the killing of George Floyd, lawmakers in several states are pushing back. They are led by Idaho, which has just enacted a law that forbids teaching critical race theory in public institutions.

At the same time, a group of conservative college activists has been found to have published more than 1,500 critiques of US college faculty last year, leading to public harassment of the lecturers and sometimes their dismissal for discussing race and other controversial topics.

Such efforts aim “to discredit truth and facts, including about the racist roots of this country”, said Gwendolyn Bradley, a senior programme officer at the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which produced the investigation.

Much of the attention in such cases has centred on critical race theory – the understanding and exploration of racial biases in human behaviour and their extensive and damaging effects on society.

Donald Trump issued an executive order last year banning the use of federal funds for such teaching, calling it divisive. Joe Biden rescinded the order before any significant attempts to test its legality.

Idaho is among several states now trying to resume Mr Trump’s strategy. Other states in which lawmakers have proposed similar bills include Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana and New Hampshire.

In addition to passing their law against teaching concepts associated with critical race theory, Idaho legislators are nearing the approval of a state budget that would cut funding from its major universities in what some of the lawmakers describe as a punishment for teaching matters of social justice.

The budget bill, already approved by the Idaho House of Representatives, would slice $1.5 million (£1.1 million) from Boise State University and $500,000 from both the University of Idaho and Idaho State University.

Boise State has been a particular target for many Idaho politicians because of its president, Marlene Tromp, an outspoken advocate of social equity in a largely conservative state. “Sometimes,” Dr Tromp wrote in a letter to her campus community, explaining the new law, “real dialogue about difficult issues can be uncomfortable, tense, or frustrating.”

The AAUP, meanwhile, focused its investigation on the conservative activist group Campus Reform, which uses campus informants to publicly challenge faculty whose speeches or writings they consider unacceptable.

Nearly half the targets of Campus Reform campaigns reported receiving threats of harm, including physical violence or death, the AAUP said in its tally of more than 1,500 case studies that Campus Reform posted last year to social media.

The most common targets were tenured faculty at major research institutions, the AAUP said. That attention to prominent thought leaders was reminiscent of the McCarthy era in the 1950s, said the faculty grouping, which has some 45,000 members.

The goal of Campus Reform, the AAUP said, “is to delegitimise not just higher education generally but specifically those institutions that make the largest share of contributions to research production in the United States”.

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