Last week, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem signed an executive order restricting the teaching of “inherently divisive concepts” in grades K-12 throughout the state. In doing so, she became the latest Republican governor to target the teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in the state.
This order should be easy to enact in South Dakota since CRT is reportedly not used anywhere in the state at any level.
But that’s not the big concern here.
Instead, the worry is that the ban of this concept will be blurred into something more, all for the sake of political gain.
It’s safe to say that, up until about two years ago, very few people were even aware of the concept of critical race theory. CRT is defined by the Education Week website this way: “The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” It is a theoretical view developed more than 40 years ago, but it’s not exactly a mainstream educational concept: One South Dakota educational official admitted to having to search for CRT online when hearing about efforts to ban it.
But attacking CRT has become a trend the last couple of years. The fact that GOP lawmakers suddenly began loudly opposing it at about the same time suggests the outrage was calculated for political leverage.
There is some disagreement among liberals and conservatives about what exactly CRT encompassed, Education Week reported, and that’s the real minefield we face.
In her executive order (which closely mirrored a bill rejected by lawmakers during the recent legislative session), Noem put it this way, “Our children will not be taught that they are racists or that they are victims, and they will not be compelled to feel responsible for the mistakes of their ancestors. We will guarantee that our students learn America’s true and honest history — that includes both our triumphs and our mistakes.”
But that vaguely worded statement, particularly the last sentence, is somewhat contradictory.
If learning about “true and honest” history means learning about “our mistakes and our triumphs,” then learning about this nation’s racial history must be part of that curriculum. And that would include learning not only about slavery and the Civil War, but also about what created the situation — including the “Three-Fifths Clause,” which counted slaves as three-fifths of a person for census purposes, that was drafted into the U.S. Constitution. It must also include what happened post-Civil War, such as the Black codes and Jim Crow laws that haunted Blacks in the south for a century.
In South Dakota, that also includes dealing with Native American relations, including the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre, which for a century was treated as a “battle,” and the roots of the reservation system that still prevails now.
The danger is that such topics might be challenged by some who misconstrue and/or distort anti-CRT legislation into something that people don’t want to hear about in the classroom. Last year, Education Week reported that the conservative Heritage Foundation placed a wide variety of issues under the CRT umbrella, including Black Lives Matter protests, diversity training, LGBTQ clubs on school campuses and more.
What must be remembered throughout all this is right in the executive order: that some of our greatest social triumphs as a nation have been derived by learning from our mistakes.
By its nebulous nature, the executive order may allow some of us to overlook or avoid that fact. And that’s the real risk in this issue.