The following remarks, which have been lightly edited for length and clarity, were delivered as part of LPE’s panel discussion, Historicizing the Assault on CRT: The Right vs. Public Education. For more on the topic, see accompanying posts by Diana Reddy and LaToya Baldwin Clark.
Discussions about anti-CRT bills often rightly focus on our present political moment. Scholars seek to explain how these efforts are part of a reaction against recent racial justice movements, or attempt to clarify what, exactly, critical race theory is and how it developed. While both forms of response are incredibly important, in my comments, I’d like to highlight how what we’re witnessing today is merely the latest iteration of a long-standing white reactionary political practice in the US. In particular, I will underscore two elements of the contemporary politics that can be found in conservative movements dating back a hundred years: the argument about American identity and the focus on schools.
The recent Texas anti-CRT bill prohibits schools from teaching that, “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” If you’re a left-of-center person, this phrasing can seem strange and disorienting. This idea of American universalism—that the US, from the founding, has been committed to principles of liberty and equality—has been central to the discourse of the civil rights movement and to its key legislative victories.
Yet, at the same time, for the better part of a century, arguments about American universalism have also been perhaps the dominant way of articulating white resistance to racial reform. Against a global and domestic backdrop in which it became less acceptable to simply assert explicitly white supremacist views, an alternative defense of racial hierarchy developed that spoke in a “civic” rather than “ethnic” nationalist register.
Starting in the early 20th century, such proponents began contending that the enlightenment came down to earth in the US and so the country was home to a set of institutions that were committed to universal equality. However, the reason the enlightenment arrived in the US, as opposed to elsewhere, was because of the culturally exceptional nature of the individuals that settled North America: Anglo-Europeans. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution did not, on this view, arise out of nowhere. They were, instead, the product of 150 years of development that began with the Puritans signing the Mayflower compact in 1620.
These claims provided a powerful grounding for racist and nativist politics in the 20th century, precisely because of the ability to entrench hierarchy in the pervasive narratives of American universalism and exceptionalism. In the 1910s and 1920s, assumptions about cultural “maturity” and “immaturity” justified viewing Black people—for instance, those moving as part of the great migration to northern cities—as threatening outsiders. They also explained why certain immigrants should be limited in entering the country, since such groups supposedly lacked the shared history and experience of native born and properly “white” Americans. And to the extent that it wasn’t possible to keep people from entering the country, such a vision promoted an intense project of Americanization, in which those from less culturally “mature” societies were to be aggressively inculcated with American values.
This way of infusing a civic nationalist politics with deeply ethno-racial assumptions relied on a specific reading of the American past. According to this interpretation, the period from 1620 to 1787 was understood as a history in the acculturation of basic principles of freedom and equality, not a history that—as socialists and other radicals at the time often contended—required Americans to confront the ongoing legacies of class rule, slave holding, and indigenous dispossession. Critically, this political struggle between competing understandings of the past—for instance, was the Constitution a fulfilment or a repudiation of the Declaration of Independence?—often occurred in the context of public education.
During the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, universal schooling became a centerpiece of progressive reform efforts. It also became a rallying cry for a variety of conservative political forces—including nativist groups, the business right, the American legion, and even the Klan—who saw indoctrination in schools as a local manifestation of broader social conflicts over both labor politics and the country’s ethno-racial identity.
Indeed, conservative reaction to ongoing developments produced a proliferation of bills that concerned school instruction. One kind of bill, adopted by 43 states by 1931, required mandatory instruction in the Constitution. While these bills may not be identical to the Texas bill discussed above, they certainly rhyme. As one key proponent noted, the point of the bills was to establish a “uniformity of instruction” throughout the country focused on instilling patriotic devotion. The aim was to prevent socialist or progressive teachers at the local level from educating students to critically evaluate the Constitution or the principles of 1776. The purpose of education, according to the bills’ sponsors, was above all instilling loyalty in the established institutions and in American nationalism.
A second set of bills at the state level, which also proliferated during the 1910s and 20s, were concerned with English-only instruction. These bills went hand in hand with national origin quotas at the congressional level, which banned migration from Asia and Africa and dramatically constricted migration from southern and eastern Europe. After the enactment of these quotas, over 80 percent of the people who entered the country were from western and northern Europe, and the percentage of foreign-born people in the US would decline from 10-15% to just 5% over the course of the mid-20th century.
Why is it that school instruction became such a galvanizing site of white reactionary politics? And why did schools, in particular, become a space for cementing alliances between nativist groups, the business right, and even the second Klan of the 1920s—the latter as much an organization of the North and West as the South?
For each of these groups, there was an immediate power to talking about indoctrination in schools. Compared to abstract conversations about labor rights and the nature of regulation, the focus on schools allowed the business right to point to a creeping socialism—“government-run” schools—that had a direct effect on the capacity of families to control the terms of instruction of their own children. Similarly, for nativist groups, these bills provided a way of tapping into a mass constituency for their aims. Such laws identified a specific threat to an Anglo-European cultural identity—a threat that, through schooling, was turning children against parents, and in doing so, breaking the basic terms of traditionalist American society.
At the same time, public school battles served to consolidate and integrate disparate conservative positions. On their face, there was nothing philosophically necessary about linking racial reaction and aggressive market capitalism. Indeed, these two could well be at odds. But along with cultivating support, school bills fused in a visceral way for parents and local constituencies the idea that Americanism went hand in hand both with an intense pro-capitalism and ethno-cultural exceptionalism.
Finally, the way that conservative activists invoked universalist themes also meant that they avoided the charge of being straightforwardly prejudiced or racist. Indeed, this was part of why such nativist efforts reached a broader potential audience, beyond those explicitly supportive of groups like the Klan. And over the following decades, it is also why comparable arguments about Americanism and school instruction have been compelling even for some non-white political pockets.
Thus, the most noteworthy aspect of this initial effort in the ‘20s and ‘30s is the way that similar pushes have reappeared whenever there has been a major flashpoint around cultural and national identity in the US. Conservatives have frequently returned to the question of indoctrination in schools and the need to reassert a combination of cultural distinctiveness and American universalism. One can see it in the politics around public schools during the 1950s Red Scare and during the fights over Spanish instruction in the 1980s and 1990s, not to mention countless other conflicts about “traditional values.” In fact, this political tendency is so profoundly embedded in rightwing politics in the US that many proponents today are largely unaware that they are doing the same thing as 100 years ago—it has become a naturalized part of the conservative policy-making toolkit. For all these reasons, it is essential to recognize the long history of these efforts, both to make sense of why they have been so galvanizing as a mode of political consciousness raising and movement organizing for the right, and to understand how it can be disrupted in the present.