Historians and educators across the United States are responding to the current political attacks on Critical Race Theory and politicians’ attempts to dictate the ways in which professional historians teach about race and racism in American history.
Many historians and journalists have rightly pointed out that the entire controversy over Critical Race Theory has been manufactured by Christopher Rufo, a far-right political activist, and his allies based on serious and deliberate misunderstandings of the history of race and racism in the American colonies, and later in the United States. The opponents of Critical Race Theory simply ignore the well-documented history of race and racism in North America and they deny outright the existence of systematic institutional racism in the United States.
Far-right media organizations and extremist groups have amplified this “controversy” into a cause célèbre, prompting conservative politicians at the local, state, and national level to introduce new legislative measures to try to control the teaching of United States history. Their aim is to threaten the professional history and social studies teachers who educate middle school and high school students on the complexities of American history and society. Far-right group also seek to attack academic historians who conduct research on race and racism by challenging Critical Race Theory.
The American Historical Association, the flagship scholarly association of academic and professional historians in the United States, has joined with other academic organizations to respond directly to this manufactured political controversy by issuing a Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History.
The American Historical Association has announced that: “The American Association of University Professors, the American Historical Association, the Association of American Colleges & Universities, and PEN America have authored a joint statement stating their ‘firm opposition’ to legislation, introduced in at least 20 states, that would restrict the discussion of ‘divisive concepts’ in public education institutions. It is not possible to address divisions that exist, however, without an honest reckoning with their histories. ‘The clear goal of these efforts is to suppress teaching and learning about the role of racism in the history of the United States,’ the letter explains. Education proceeds from exploration, facts, and civil debate. ‘These legislative efforts,’ on the other hand, ‘seek to substitute political mandates for the considered judgment of professional educators, hindering students’ ability to learn and engage in critical thinking across differences and disagreements. . . . Americans of all ages deserve nothing less than a free and open exchange about history and the forces that shape our world today.'”
While the focus of this statement is on the teaching of United States History, we need to recognize the broader implications of this political controversy for teaching of World History and other history and social studies courses.
The history of race and racism is much longer and broader than many people have realized. Historians around the world are currently delving into evidence of longue durée patterns of racial categorization and racism. I have conducted research and published on the connections between race, violence, and imperialism in the early modern Mediterranean and Atlantic World. I recently participated in a conference on Centring Race in History: Antiquity to the Present, which showcased new findings in the growing field of research on the history race and racism in the premodern world.
I am a member of the American Historical Association and am active in the Society for French Historical Studies, Western Society for French History, World History Association, and other academic organizations that are signatories of the joint statement. I endorse the Joint Statement on Legislative Efforts to Restrict Education about Racism and American History.
Undergraduate students in Northern Illinois University’s History and Social Science Secondary Educator Licensure Programs will be especially interested in reading the AHA’s joint statement. NIU’s Department of History trains many students who go to become middle school and high school teachers of History and Social Sciences in Illinois. Professional educators will surely continue to grapple with the “History Wars” and the broader “Culture Wars” long after the current controversy over Critical Race Theory subsides.
The entire joint statement is available as a .pdf document on the American Historical Association’s website.
The Atlantic has published an article tracing the development of the political controversy about Critical Race Theory.
Michelle Goldberg describes Christopher Rufo as “a clever propagandist who has done more than anyone else to whip up the national uproar over critical race theory.” Her opinion column is available at The New York Times.
Eugene Robinson’s commentary on the Critical Race Theory controversy is available at The Washington Post.
Historian Tim Snyder, a specialist on the history of totalitarianism, has published an essay on the latest episodes in the culture wars, “The War on History is a War on Democracy,” in The New York Times.