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Threat of ‘critical race theory’ in Iowa schools is a specter of Republican lawmakers’ imagination
State lawmakers in Iowa and elsewhere are flailing against anti-racist projects
A bill awaiting Gov. Kim Reynolds’ signature would ban critical race theory in Iowa classrooms, its proponents claim.
Conservative policymakers and the some journalists have taken to using critical race theory as a catchall for discussions on racism in America. But those words don’t mean what they think they mean.
Critical race theory refers to a set of ideas developed by legal scholars in the late 1970s, attempting to center racism as a driving factor for racial disparities in the legal system. It is controversial but it’s not outside the bounds of thoughtful inquiry.
For at least the first 40 years of its existence, up until last year, interest in what’s now called critical race theory was exclusive to small subsets of academics and activists. We’re talking about it right now in Iowa not because its popularity is on the rise, but because of a contrived opposition movement.
Critical race theory is fundamentally critical of the government and the power it wields over citizens. In a free society, criticisms of the state must enjoy special protection.
In more than 15 years of Google search data, critical race theory has rarely even been a blip on the line graph. Searches for the term spiked for the first time last September, when then-President Donald Trump directed agencies to identify and cancel government projects and training programs related to critical race theory and white privilege.
Search traffic for critical race theory has skyrocketed this year. But again, it’s not due to some surge in anti-racist curriculum. It’s because legislators in states such as Iowa have been introducing bills and making statements lashing out at the concept.
At least a dozen state legislatures have seen bills this year seeking to ban critical race theory or related ideas from public schools and government-sponsored trainings. Iowa and four other states have passed such bills, according to States Newsroom.
Iowa’s bill does not mention critical race theory by name, but lawmakers made clear that’s what they’re targeting, and the language mimics Trump’s executive order from last September. It forbids teaching that the United States or Iowa are “fundamentally or systemically racist or sexist.”
During a floor debate on a version of the bill, state Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, dumped critical race theory in with a laundry list of left-leaning values. In his view, it’s a stalking horse for unions, minimum wage increases and school funding hikes.
“I have yet to see a solution proposed that is slanted toward a conservative view on an issue,” Wheeler said in March.
It shows just how much social conservatives are flailing. Their understanding of critical race theory is not based in reality, but instead is a meme spun up by factional media and forced onto the agenda by a one-term president.
Agree or disagree, the idea that racial bias still pervades our legal system is worth considering. That’s what schools are supposed to do — present a variety of ideas to consider, not hand down one set of government-approved facts.
Critical race theory is fundamentally critical of the government and the power it wields over citizens. In a free society, criticisms of the state must enjoy special protection. By banning them instead, Iowa Republicans put forth a vision that exalts the state over the individual.
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