Students were already enrolled, and Melissa Smith was ready to teach her long-term course on “Race and Race in America” at the Community College in Oklahoma. Until an email arrives in May: it will be canceled this summer. Reason: New law regulating racist education in the state of Oklahoma. The Board wishes to read the law in its entirety before daring to pursue a series of discourses that are critical of ethnic relations in the country.
It fits in with a trend, Joe Cohn sees. He is the policy director of Fire, an organization that promotes freedom of speech in American universities – which has been a major right-wing visual object in recent years. When left-wing activists blocked speech by conservative speakers, it provoked outrage.
According to Cohn, there is no political color to the matter. In recent times, he sees more and more laws being passed in Republicans.Critical race theoryCritical Race Theory. “This is a new phenomenon. Laws explicitly prohibit certain teachings about race and gender.”
The dark pages of American history
Until recently, critical race theory was an academic term used only in a limited circle. Roughly speaking, it describes a research direction in which racism can be found not only in individual racists, but also in power relations and similar categories. The term has become a pet of Republican politicians, who believe that ideas such as the annoyance of diversity training, the “white privilege” and historical education pay more attention to the darker sides of American history.
According to Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt, those dark sides may be named, but “we must teach this history without labeling young children as ‘oppressors’ and without asking them to feel guilty and humiliated because of their race or gender”.
Those who initiated all of these new laws rarely provide concrete examples of the lessons learned. Not bad, says Aaron Baker, state design and history teacher at Oklahoma City High School. “Classical discussions lead to all sorts of emotions: frustration, awkwardness, maybe even anger. But I do not know anyone who strives for shame in education, it’s completely negative in a classroom.”
Baker is such an author that it is important to focus on institutional racism in his subjects in order to correct historical myths. “It’s important to tell the truth about someone like Thomas Jefferson” – one Founders, He was a slave owner. But he likes to stick to the facts.
Still, in a conservative state like Oklahoma, it sometimes leads to debates in the classroom, but politicians there no longer need to be politicized, he says. “There was a student in the last semester that sometimes exploded, but we were able to find each other again when we thought about the volunteer work we were organizing at school. When it comes to issues in the neighborhood, it’s no longer a politically polarized conversation.”
Baker has no fear from the letter of the law. In the end, it says a little more than that no one should be discriminated against on the basis of race or ethnicity. “But it’s worrying to know where it’s coming from.”
Walking in nests
Joe Cohn agrees. Not only in Oklahoma, but a series of sermons died. In Idaho, one of the other states that recently passed a bill against “critical race theory”, Boise State University decided earlier this year to suspend all classes and training on race and diversity, after an anonymous complaint revealed that it was unsubstantiated. Cohn points out that the law does not stand alone. In Idaho, the Republican-dominated state legislature also decided to reduce the university’s budget in the words of a representative, “Send the message we want to help determine what is being taught.” Cohn: “The overall politically charged atmosphere will lay eggs in people’s education.”
Now many Republican politicians will oppose what those in education have already done, but under pressure from the other side, left-wing politics is right. For them, the current laws are a necessary counter-force. Cohn sees it differently. “You can certainly ask yourself if there is enough diversity in today’s higher education, but censorship is never the way to do anything about it.”
Cohn receives signals that university administrators are weakening, but that teachers also feel less independent of what they dare to say in class.
Baker is not worried for now. He points to the Tulsa ethnic riots that took place 100 years ago in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “The governor wants us to say, well, this happened, but I do not know why. In class you should ask: Who is responsible? Why was no one arrested? If this is a critical race theory, I’m in trouble.
In the city of Tulsa, the wounds of the 1921 massacre did not heal
One hundred years ago, one of the largest racially motivated massacres in American history took place in Tulsa. An event that was recently deeply buried, it is now essential to read in Oklahoma school textbooks.
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