What do witches and Critical Race Theory have in common? The answer is that Republican efforts to ban teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools are the latest chapter in a long history of moral panics, starting with the Salem Witch Trials, and including anti-Catholic hysteria, Japanese internment, McCarthyism, Islamophobic fearmongering, and more. And, of course, anti-Black panic has remained a cornerstone of American political life, from false rape allegations routinely leveled against Black men to white parents’ advocacy of secession following Brown vs. Board of Education. Fundamentally, the current bans on CRT continue the centuries-old racist panic that Black people — and any recognition of the injustice they have faced — inherently threaten the (white) American way of life.

On Thursday, Florida fanned the flames of this moral panic, becoming the fifth state to ban teaching CRT in its public schools (with at least 10 other states currently considering such bans). The new regulation prohibits “the teaching of Critical Race Theory, meaning the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.” It also bans using any materials from The New York Times’ “1619 Project” or defining “American history as something other than the creation of a new nation based largely on universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.” 

The law is particularly absurd because it expects teachers to avoid discussing white supremacy or systemic and legal racism despite still mandating discussions of slavery, Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights Movement — a history impossible to teach accurately while viewing racism simply as the product of individual prejudice. 

These recent efforts mirror the Southern air-brushing of history following the Civil War when “the white ruling class had tried to avoid the conflicts that could have produced change by coercing conformity and stifling dissent over slavery, white supremacy, violence, secession, poverty, disfranchisement, black oppression, and other divisive issues,” according to Charles W. Eagles in his book Civil Rights, Culture Wars: The Fight Over a Mississippi Textbook. Unfortunately, little has changed since then: Politicians continue to coerce conformity on racial history with little regard for accuracy or truth, as reflected by several states that specifically cite “divisive issues” in their anti-CRT laws. 

Equally concerning, Texas’ law naively attempts to divide history from current politics, stating that “a teacher may not be compelled to discuss current events or widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs” and, if they do, must “explore those topics from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective.” This effort to silence an honest examination of institutionalized racism is particularly egregious given that the Texas legislature tried to pass a bill just a few weeks ago that would have made it harder for Black Texans to vote, starkly echoing Jim Crow voting restrictions

Meanwhile, bills in several states (many with nearly identical language) will prevent teachers from even mentioning concepts like unconscious racism and racial awareness. To their advocates, the confusion about what these laws actually prohibit is clearly a feature, not a bug. Indeed, intentionally vague laws will attempt to scare teachers away from any discussion of race, especially ones that connect historic racism to anything more recent than the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

If a Florida student, for example, asks their teacher about the connection between extrajudicial lynchings in the 20th century and more recent extrajudicial police murders, what sort of answer sufficiently addresses “both sides” of the issue? Or, can an English teacher in Louisiana — where a proposed bill would forbid teaching that “either the United States of America or the state of Louisiana is fundamentally, institutionally, or systemically racist or sexist” — have their class read A Lesson Before Dying, Earnest Gaines’ poignant novel which explores racism in Louisiana’s criminal justice system? 

In whitewashing Civil War history, Eagles explains, “powerful southern whites resisted a historical vision that criticized their culture and their dominance in it.” Today’s GOP is doing the very same. Such sweeping and ill-defined legislation will have a chilling effect on teachers, making them more likely to avoid even passing mentions of racism for fear of losing their jobs and leading to the same dishonest telling of history that powerful whites have been peddling for centuries.

This is far from the first time that public education has become a flashpoint for moral panic. One mid-19th century Protestant author warned parents that Catholic teachers will “disarm you and lull suspicion to sleep, then . . . stealthily lead the confiding mind of your child out of the reach of parental control,” as Mark Stein notes in his book American Panic: A History of Who Scares Us and Why, which also describes subsequent panics over Communism, gay teachers, and sex education in the classroom.

More broadly, the book argues that moral panics tend to follow three main patterns. First, Stein argues that panic often leads people to do the very thing they fear, such as anti-Communists arguing that Communism threatened the Constitution in order to justify suspending due process and First Amendment rights, or when opponents of immigrant groups sowed division that weakened our nation as they argued that new immigrants would threaten our country’s unity. In the same way, opponents of CRT contend that such concepts will stoke racial divisions and teach students to hate each other — meanwhile, a moratorium on honest conversations about race and identity will, in fact, deepen racial ignorance leading to the very divisions and hate these critics claim to be preventing. 

Second, Stein demonstrates that panic is almost always built on “unverified claims” and “filtered facts.” Similarly, the current panic over CRT primarily ignores that almost no school systems are actually teaching it, especially considering that most CRT literature is written in highly technical and academic jargon. Moreover, it selectively filters the very definition of what CRT is, incorrectly labeling everything from education about racism and social justice to so-called “cancel culture” as CRT. One popular talking point even links CRT to Marxism, another subject famously targeted by American political panic. By misrepresenting CRT in this way, it more easily turns public opinion against actual CRT, and (more importantly) it provides white people with an all-encompassing target for anything that makes them feel racially threatened — including the accurate portrayal of American history and diversity and inclusion efforts.

Lastly, Stein contends that panickers frequently turn to quoting the Founding Fathers to justify their hysteria and argue that the perceived threat is poised to ruin the American way of life. Once again, the fear of CRT is a textbook example: Conservatives argue that it will fill students with un-American ideas that run counter to our country’s founding principles, with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claiming that CRT is “based on false history when they try to look back and denigrate the Founding Fathers, denigrate the American Revolution.” This, too, is a form of filtering — DeSantis proudly subscribes to a myopic view that attempts to extract the Founders’ well-documented racism from the country they shaped, including their support for Native American genocide in the process. 

Crucially, these debates come at a time where honest conversations about racial history are increasingly essential. A 2017 Southern Poverty Law Center study revealed that only eight percent of high school seniors could identify slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War. And in 2011, only two percent of high school seniors could correctly identify the social problem that led the Supreme Court to write: “Separate but equal has no place, separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”

This ignorance is not an accident but rather the tragic result of decades of intentional interference in school policy, itself inextricably tied to our legacy of moral panic. These panics represent some of the most intolerant and disgraceful episodes in our nation’s history, yet Republicans are barreling down the same path, having learned little from the past. After all, those who do not learn history — the very goal of these restrictive laws — are doomed to repeat it.

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