Commentary

Donald Trump calls anti-racist education “toxic propaganda”

OCT 15, 2016: Donald Trump speaks at Hindu Indian-American rally for
OCT 15, 2016: Donald Trump speaks at Hindu Indian-American rally for "Humanity United Against Terror"Photo: Shutterstock

At the White House Conference on American History, Trump blasted “critical race theory” as Marxist and lambasted the New York Times‘s 1619 Project (named after the year white slavers started kidnapping Africans and dumped them as property in Virginia).

“Critical race theory, the 1619 Project, and the crusade against American history is toxic propaganda,” Trump exploded, “ideological poison that if not removed will dissolve the civic bonds that tie us together. It will destroy our country. That is why I recently banned trainings in this prejudiced ideology from the federal government and banned it in the strongest manner possible.”

Related: Christian extremists are celebrating Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death

He referred here to his banning of “diversity training” for federal employees based on the concept that the U.S. is a nation with systemic or institutional racism, instead of concluding that any racism that may arise comes from some people on the individual level.

Trump said he will create a commission to promote “patriotic and pro-American education” to counter the “twisted web of lies” being taught in schools and universities that “America is a wicked and racist nation.”

By Executive Order, Trump declared he will establish “The 1776 Commission” to inspire educators to teach students about “the miracle of American history” and to make plans to honor the 250th anniversary of our country.

Since local school districts make their own curricular decisions, and the federal government cannot legally enforce its control, Trump’s latest rampage against our educational systems is intended to instill fear and anger among his consistent 40% of supporters nationwide.

What, though, could be more “patriotic” and “pro-American” than for the people of our country to finally and completely confront our racist past, the foundation on which this nation arose and whose legacy continues to oppress, divide, and divert us from our founding principles of “liberty and justice FOR ALL”?

Critical Race Theory

Critical Race Theory, developed by such notable preeminent legal scholars, educators, and theorists as Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Camara Phyllis Jones, Mari Matsuda, Gloria Ladson-Billings, and others rest on several essential pillars:

  • Counter-Storytelling as Counter-Narrative by naming one’s own reality to refute the “single story narrative” told about one’s group.
  • Racism is a permanent and pervasive feature of societies.
  • Whiteness as property; that white racial identity is deeply interrelated with the concepts of property and unearned privileges.
  • Interest Conversion: White people will support civil rights when they see what is in it for them as white people
  • Critique of Liberalism: White people are the primary beneficiaries of civil rights legislation; the failure of incrementalism; the elimination of racism requires large-scale sweeping change efforts. This advocates a more aggressive approach to liberation and transformation while rejecting a more cautious approach, a race-conscious approach to liberal adaption of affirmative action, “color blindness,” role modeling, or the merit principle (so-called “meritocracy.”)

Who knows whether Karl Marx would have supported and advocated for all or some of these foundational tenets of Critical Race Theory – maybe yes, maybe no? But to refer to it as “Marxist” is not only reductivist, but more likely intended as a dismissive buzz word to incite Trump’s brown-shirted acolytes.

The Social Production of Knowledge

What is “knowledge”?

“What,” one might reply. “Knowledge is… you know.”

But what do you know? I ask again, what is knowledge?

Okay, for the sake of discussion, can we answer by arguing that “knowledge” is anything the dominant group defines as “knowledge”?

Let us just assume for the moment that this is true. Then can we say that “knowledge” is socially produced or constructed? Why? or Why not?

Well, let us again assume that “knowledge” is, indeed, socially produced or constructed. If so, is “knowledge” singular or plural (“knowledges”) depending on one’s position and point of view to this “knowledge”?

Here is an additional question: Is being “schooled” the same or different from being “educated”?

According to Roger Riley, a professor at Illinois State University who studies concepts of socially produced knowledge: “Socially constructed (produced) is a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena or objects of consciousness develop in social contexts, or an idea, thought, concept, practice that is created by a group of people.”

Let us take an example: The notion of “race” is socially constructed. The concept of “race” arose concurrently with the advent of European exploration as a justification and rationale for conquest and domination of the globe beginning in the 15th century of the Common Era.

Geneticists tell us that there is often more variability within a given so-called “race” than between “races” and that there are no essential genetic markers linked specifically to “race.”

“Race,” therefore, is a historical, “scientific,” and biological myth. It is an idea. It has been socially produced.

Though scientists have found a genetic basis for one’s skin color, hair texture, facial features, these have evolved over large expanses of time depending on where one’s ancestors came from and how far or how close they settled to the Earth’s Equator.

In truth, everyone’s original ancestors emanated from the African Continent.

Differentiating “Schooling” from “Educating”: A Case Study

Following closely on the heels of a bill passed by the Arizona legislature and signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer severely restricting ethnic studies courses and multicultural curricular inclusion in that state’s schools, the Texas School Board voted in sweeping changes to its social studies curriculum.

Considering 213 amendments for changes in the state’s social studies standards, known as the Texas Standards for Knowledge and Skills for grades kindergarten through 12, Christian social conservatives, who comprised the majority of the Board, voted strictly along party lines: nine Republicans, five Democrats.

Board member, Cynthia Dunbar, R-Richmond, a high school anatomy and physiology teacher made her position and the position of the other Christian social conservatives very clear in her opening prayer at the hearing, in which she asserted that U.S. laws and the government itself should be founded on the Christian Bible:

“I believe no one can read the history of our country without realizing that the Good Book and the spirit of the savior have from the beginning been our guiding geniuses,” she declared. “Whether we look to the first charter of Virginia, or the charter of New England…the same objective is present — a Christian land governed by Christian principles….I like to believe we are living today in the spirit of the Christian religion. I like also to believe that as long as we do so, no great harm can come to our country. All this I say in the spirit of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Dunbar authored the 2008 book, One Nation under God, arguing that the Founders created “an emphatically Christian government” and that government should be guided by a “biblical litmus test.”

Among the extensive list of changes to the Texas social studies curriculum includes information that presents Confederate President Jefferson Davis on par with Abraham Lincoln; deletion of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”; addressing the Civil War as an issue of states’ rights; giving more attention to conservative organizations like the Moral Majority, National Rifle Association, and the Heritage Foundation; replacing the term “Capitalism” with “free-enterprise system”; referring to the United States as a “constitutional republic” rather than as a “democracy.”

In addition, the new changes questioned whether the United Nations imperils U.S. sovereignty; vindicated McCarthyism of the 1950s; teaches about the Christian influences on the Founders (and I would add even though many did not define themselves as Christians per se, and some considered themselves as secular); gives expanded information of a list of Confederate officials and conservative political leaders like Phyllis Schaffley; eliminated references to John Madison; refused to update B.C. and A. D. to B.C.E. and C.E.; white washed and sometimes deleted sections of U.S. civil rights history; watered down and questioned the legal doctrine and rationale for the separation of religion (“church”) and state.

An amendment proposed but eventually voted down was a change in the term “Atlantic Slave Trade” to “Atlantic Triangular Trade.”

Knowledge Production

On a micro level, what the Texas School Board, and earlier the Arizona legislature, show us are some of the ways in which those who hold power determine and define “knowledge” and how “knowledge” is consciously and very deliberately produced and disseminated.

In academic parlance, we refer to the concept of “hegemony” coined by social theorist Antonio Gramsci to describe the ways in which the dominant group, in this case socially conservative Christians in general and predominantly Protestants, successfully disseminate dominant social realities and social visions in a manner accepted as common sense, as “normal,” as universal—even though only an estimated 30% of the world’s inhabitants are Christian—and as representing part of the natural order.

This dominant group-controlled production of “knowledge” maintains the marginality of other groups, and it denies all students options in understanding multiple perspectives from which to construct meaning.

This institutionalization of a socially conservative Christian norm or standard functions to legitimize what can be said, who has the authority to speak and be heard, and what is authorized as true or as the truth, while perpetuating the notion that all people are or should be Christian and socially conservative, which thereby continues the privileging of socially conservative Christians and Christianity.

(No) Conclusion

The Texas School Board has clearly taken a retrenchment position away from the very modest gains made in curricular development of providing multiple perspectives, which could stimulate students’ critical thinking skills, to a default monocultural position from a conservative Christian European-heritage perspective. Basically, the Board is confusing education with indoctrination.

Though Texas K-12 students comprise only approximately 8.5% (4.7 million) of the estimated 55.2 million students nationwide, Texas is the second largest textbook market for book publishers. The curricular changes in Texas, therefore, have implications for the content in textbooks nationwide.

During and since her congressional confirmation hearings, Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education, has proven her utter lack of qualifications and her contempt for public education. As a private citizen, she advocated for a voucher system that would divert funding from public schools to private and parochial schools and give greater emphasis on for-profit charter schools. During her tenure, she was charged with plagiarism.

Over the past four years, as the Trump administration continues its assault on our students, the very foundations of education are at risk.

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