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‘Stop CRT’ Bill, Votes in Congress Add to Political Drama Over Critical Race Theory

By Andrew Ujifusa — July 15, 2021 5 min read
Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., speaks during a hearing to examine United States Special Operations Command and United States Cyber Command in review of the Defense Authorization Request for fiscal year 2022 and the Future Years Defense Program, on Capitol Hill, Thursday, March 25, 2021, in Washington.
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You can now add legislation from a potential 2024 presidential candidate to the growing stack of proposals on Capitol Hill that Republicans are using to signal their opposition to critical race theory.

The “Stop CRT Act” from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., which the senator unveiled Wednesday and is a companion bill to House legislation filed in May, would prohibit federal funds from going to schools that teach students that one race is inherently inferior or superior to another, that someone is inherently oppressive or racist because of his or her racial identity, that America is a fundamentally racist country, or that promote critical race theory in general.

Separately, House Republican lawmakers on Thursday pushed amendments targeting critical race theory to bills about school diversity and the Civil Rights Act.

Critical race theory is a decades-old academic concept that racism is a social construct that’s embedded in policies and legal systems, and is not just the product of individual prejudices.

“Critical Race Theory teaches people to obsess over race and to believe that America is an evil, oppressive place,” Cotton said in a statement. “Federal funds should not be used to support activists in schools who want to teach our kids to hate each other and their country.”

The Stop CRT Act from Cotton and from Rep. Dan Bishop, R-N.C., in the House, is “messaging” legislation that stands virtually no chance of being enacted. And the federal government is barred from dictating decisions about curriculum to schools.

But the bill and the proposed amendments from Republicans are yet another signal that the controversy over how teachers are addressing racism and sexism has exploded in the past several months, as many states have moved quickly to restrict how educators approach “divisive concepts.”

Educators have expressed serious concerns about the ways these restrictions, which 11 states have adopted so far and many other states are considering, will affect how they teach students about issues like slavery and Jim Crow. And there are also practical concerns about how these bills would be enforced.

More generally, educators say these bills are targeting practices that teachers aren’t actually engaging in, and represent cynically manufactured hysteria for political advantage. Some parents in Tennessee have criticized the use of a curriculum that includes the story of Ruby Bridges, who helped integrate New Orleans public schools more than 60 years ago, based on the state’s new law prohibiting schools from using critical race theory.

Yet GOP lawmakers and others raising alarms about critical race theory say they see evidence that schools are engaging in various practices that unfairly single out or target students, sewing racial divisions and pushing radical political ideas onto students to make them feel discomfort or shame. The fight has become yet another cultural battle in schools.

The state bills incorporated language from an executive order President Donald Trump signed last year banning federal diversity trainings. Trump attacked what he called left-wing propaganda in school history classes and said that students should be taught to love their country.

The House legislation says the federal government can’t provide money to support the teaching or advancement of the following:

  • “Any race is inherently superior or inferior to any other race.”
  • “The United States is a fundamentally racist country.”
  • “The Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution are fundamentally racist documents.”
  • “An individual’s moral worth is determined by his or her race.”
  • “An individual, by virtue of his or her race, is inherently racist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”
  • “An individual, because of his or her race, bears responsibility for the actions committed by members of his or her race.”

Cotton introduced legislation earlier this year that would cut federal funding for schools that use the 1619 Project—a New York Times Magazine series that puts slavery and racism at the heart of American history—in classes. However, that bill would shield programs for disadvantaged students, special education, and school meals from any such cuts. That bill is also highly unlikely to get traction in a Congress controlled by Democrats.

Cotton, who also waded into the issue last summer, is considered a potential Republican candidate for president in 2024.

The bill from Bishop has 51 co-sponsors in the House. In a Wednesday statement issued alongside Cotton’s, Bishop called critical race theory a “poisonous, neo-Marxist ideology” that represents “state-sanctioned racism.”

Cotton said the Stop CRT Act would not prevent people from researching critical race theory, and would not stop “individuals from exercising lawful, protected speech.”

Other legislation from GOP lawmakers has targeted critical race theory in different ways this Congress, including one bill that would amend the main federal K-12 law to prohibit the use of critical race theory. And House GOP lawmakers made an issue of critical race theory in a hearing this week.

The House education committee voted Thursday to advance the Strength in Diversity Act, which would support voluntary school integration efforts; Democrats have tried but failed to enact the bill in the past.

Rep. Bob Good, R-Va., introduced an amendment to the legislation that said “diversity in schools is undermined by the teaching of critical race theory.” The amendment would have barred federal funding from supporting instruction that made assumptions, assigned characteristics, or separated students or teachers based on race, color, or national origin. Lawmakers rejected this amendment.

During the committee’s hearing last month with U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, someone seemed to shout “racist” at Good while the GOP lawmaker was discussing critical race theory.

The panel also advanced the Equity and Inclusion Enforcement Act that would create a right for private individuals to file certain legal complaints under the Civil Rights Act.

Rep. Burgess Owens, R-Utah, introduced an amendment to that bill similar to Good’s. That amendment from Owens was also voted down.

During the hearing, Good said curriculum rooted in critical race theory has “infiltrated all levels of our education system.”

“CRT and related ideology teach children that their skin color defines them,” he said, later adding praise for parents resisting critical race theory.

Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., the 2016 National Teacher of the Year, rejected those ideas.

“No teacher is teaching children to hate themselves, to hate their race, to hate their history. That’s just not what teachers do,” Hayes said.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration approvingly cited the 1619 Project as well as writing from the self-identified anti-racist Ibram X. Kendi in a set of proposed grant priorities related to history and civics. The proposal did not promote or mention critical race theory, but in response Republicans criticized the administration for highlighting work they deemed wrong and alienating.

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