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“When the devil is at your front door” is a popular idiom used in many Black communities to warn against waiting till it’s too late to worry about a problem. We take this idiom seriously amid the current moral panic over critical race theory.
The devil is at our front door right now. In this age of disinformation, at a moment when critical race theory has been falsely framed as hate-mongering aimed to castigate white people and banned in schools, we must set the record straight.
Critical race theory is insurgent thinking that draws from scholars who have spoken about the need to teach the complexities of our history. From Mary McLeod Bethune to W.E.B. DuBois to James Baldwin to Kimberlé Crenshaw to many others, scholars of critical race theory remind us that the U.S. story is complex and layered. Across time and space, Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander parents have followed in their footsteps because they have never had the luxury of believing that schools would educate their children on this country’s full history, so have often had to do it themselves. Thankfully, critical race theory provides powerful tools that help us understand how systems reproduce racial inequities — that is the only way we hold the devil at bay.
Debates about the purpose of critical race theory and about whether it is even taught in schools aren’t useful because they miss a larger point. We will never make discussions of white supremacy palatable to those who are invested in upholding it. They will continue disingenuous oversimplifications and bad faith attacks, even if they cannot define critical race theory or name the scholars behind it, because white rage is about covering up histories and hiding truth in the service of maintaining power.
Their bans of critical race theory from the classroom are attempts to avoid the responsibility to accurately depict historical and current racial inequities; their bans use color-evasiveness in education to avoid talking about racism and white supremacy altogether.
Behind these bans is the backlash that often follows calls for actions that would lead to racial advancement: in this case, the demand that we not be murdered by police, our record voter turnout and our fight for comprehensive health care, quality jobs and fair wages. The right wing’s answer is to prevent the teaching of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian and white children their full and accurate histories by outlawing the practice of confronting past and present racial inequities that are fueled by racism and white supremacy.
Bans on teaching critical race theory must not be allowed to stop the demands that whiteness come to grips with its mythmaking and disinformation. If no school employee in Oklahoma can share material that makes any individual “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex,” how will educators teach about the Tulsa massacre or all the other massacres of Black people by whites across the continent over the last 400 years? In Texas, if a teacher discusses “a particular current event or widely debated and currently controversial issue of public policy or social affairs,” they must now “strive to explore the topic from diverse and contending perspectives without giving deference to any one perspective” — how does one show “diverse” perspectives of the Holocaust or Juneteenth or the extrajudicial murder of George Floyd?
Ultimately these laws reflect a hard truth: Historical accuracy has become an existential threat to white supremacy.
These bans are not going to stop at critical race theory or the 1619 Project. But they have already had social and material impacts on teachers who are trying to teach complex histories and students who are searching for truth in their schools.
And attempts are already underway to expand the bans to prohibit teaching about equity, diversity, inclusion “and worse.” An Oklahoma law also bans “requiring gender or sexual diversity training.”
Let’s fight for critical race theory because it provides us the analytic tools needed for this moment. Let’s go to school board meetings and legislative sessions and, when the moral panic around critical race theory begins, ask, “if you don’t think systemic racism exists, why do you think racial inequities in legal, health care, education and other sectors exist?” We can say, “I am not a critical race scholar, but I am in solidarity with them and all educators, and I will fight for the right to use all tools to teach about racism and white supremacy in our history and present. Why don’t you?”
We will never make discussions of white supremacy palatable to those who are invested in upholding it.
We can’t wait to challenge a system that is trying to take these tools away.
We must use the tools critical race theory gives us — now. For example, Derrick Bell’s racial realism recognizes that the devil is always near our front door because white supremacy is so firmly entrenched in American society. Whiteness will always try to absolve itself of its history while perpetuating new iterations of racism through laws, policies and practices.
The concept of interest convergence, also theorized by Bell, explains why Juneteenth — a celebration of uncovering hidden lies about white supremacy — has gained approval as a national holiday while bills that would ban teaching about its history are being passed. The holiday becomes threatening as soon as we begin to discuss its historical context.
Cheryl Harris’s descriptions of whiteness as property addresses how white supremacy is fueled by the right to exclude, which explains the urgency people feel to exclude the histories of both oppression and resistance from the approved curriculum.
Intersectionality, conceptualized in the academy by Kimberlé Crenshaw, requires understanding how multiply-marginalized Black, Indigenous, Latinx and Asian folks experience these bans and looks to them for solutions. The bans against transgender youth in sports — supported by many of the same legislators and constituents that are behind the critical race theory panic — will harm all trans students, and will especially harm Black trans girls and Black women, like Caster Semenya, who are consistently harassed for not being feminine enough. Intersectionality requires us to do solidarity work even if we are not at the intersection of multiple oppressions. We need to connect our struggles.
Finally, critical race theory in the field of education is a tool that seeks to understand how schools reproduce power that dehumanizes those that do not fit the ideas around who is “normal.” It is about recognizing the policies and laws that hide truths and harm children.
We want all children to have the tools to recognize how racism and white supremacy are built into our systems. That should not make white kids feel bad, it should allow them, along with Black, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian American and Pacific Islander children, to feel empowered to change the system. Engaging color-evasiveness in schools to avoid our past and current events will not eliminate racial inequities.
We will never “get past” race if we never get to it.
David Stovall is a professor in the Department of Black Studies and in the Department of Criminology, Law, and Justice at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Subini Annamma is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.
This story about critical race theory was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.