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Local Efforts to Resist Right-Wing Attacks on Education Need National Support

Local fights are intensifying as right-wing assaults on education build on the panic created over critical race theory.

Students against the critical race theory (CRT) ban make their views known while pro-ban speakers talk during the public comment portion of a meeting of the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School Board in Placentia, California, on March 23, 2022.

On January 6, 2023, two years after the far right occupation of the U.S. Capitol, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that he was appointing Christopher Rufo to the Board of Trustees of the New College of Florida. Rufo had been one of the key architects of the Republican effort to stir up a public frenzy around “critical race theory” — turning the term into a right-wing dog whistle for any attempt to teach the realities of racism and U.S. history. His formal entry into college administration marked an escalation in the right’s assault on schools. About one month after his appointment, Rufo described his new tactics in the ongoing effort to purge schools of progressive thought. His guide to “persuasive language for the fight against DEI bureaucracy” included terms like “Political loyalty oaths,” “Racially-segregated programs,” “Active discrimination in hiring,” “Activism in the guise of scholarship,” and “Left-wing racialist ideology” (a particular favorite of Rufo’s). The terrain upon which the assaults on “critical race theory,” which swept local school boards and conscripted private citizens into their efforts, now includes a frontal assault on employees, school governance, and more.

That Rufo can expose his literal playbook — as he often does via Twitter — is a reminder of his success. As we warned in Truthout almost two years ago, the Republican assault on so-called critical race theory was a means of inducing a moral panic, mobilizing an electoral base and gaining control over one of the last publicly funded institutions: schools. This, we suggested, was especially tragic because schools were already no utopia, having long borne the brunt of right-wing ire and neoliberal budget cuts. We also warned that the means of resistance had to be grassroots, coalitional, multipronged organizing. Against a Democratic National Committee that seemed content to cut its losses in states across the South and the Midwest — where losses, it is worth noting, affect real people — we insisted that the shoring up of Republican strength called for reinvigorated political efforts to empower local leaders opposing conservative educational platforms to reinvest in and transform their schools.

Since then, much of what we feared has come to pass: State legislatures that were already majority-Republican buttressed their dominance, drew up voting maps that reinforced their strength, and ruled carte blanche. Across the country, right-wing state governments drew up bills instituting widespread censorship and restructuring of public schools. This includes book bans, surveillance of school employees, reshaping of school boards, and more. It also includes bills currently in motion in Texas, Utah, West Virginia, Iowa and Florida which seek to ban diversity statements; defund diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) initiatives; and prohibit “radical gender theory” (itself related to the false portrayal of “critical race theory” and part of the anti-trans panic viciously gripping Republican-held state legislatures). All these efforts have coalesced in a Republican push to transform education in the United States today, leading Cornel West, Angela Davis, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and a number of leading thinkers to call for U.S. educational authorities to resist “‘anti-woke’ censorship.”

DeSantis’s appointment of Rufo to the Board of the New College of Florida, his commitment to dismantling the curriculum as it stands, and his hope of transforming the school into one that enshrines “conservative values” assuredly do not bode well. Yet these efforts have not gone unopposed. Rather, local dissenters have fought these right-wing agendas, revealing that the future of U.S. education is, in fact, up for debate. What is needed now, accordingly, is national support for these local dissenters akin to the civil rights movement’s national support for local fights against Jim Crow.

Consider the case of Florida. The state is governed by DeSantis, whose “Don’t Say Gay” bill has banned instruction on gender and sexual identity in public schools (in a state where abstinence-only sex education is the norm); who has attempted to defund diversity initiatives in publicly funded educational institutions; and who has sought to cut funding for public universities that provide gender-affirming medical care. Flagler County, where one of us grew up, is currently represented by Paul Renner in the Florida House of Representatives, where he serves as Speaker of the House. Unsurprisingly, the county has been a frontline in the war on education. In November 2021, a Flagler County school board member filed a criminal complaint against George M. Johnson’s Black, queer, coming-of-age memoir, All Black Boys Aren’t Blue. Though the sheriff’s department did not act, the school board removed the book and other texts from the school library well before DeSantis signed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill into law in March 2022.

The school board was met with almost immediate resistance. Jack Petocz, a high school senior at the time, organized a series of protests against the book ban, the Don’t Say Gay bill, and other right-wing efforts. He spoke at a local school board meeting (at which he was censored by the school board), and he and his peers walked out of school (for which he was suspended). That Petocz was repressed for seeking an equitable education is pitiable, no matter how predictable. But it is also evidence that he and his ilk need support through the greater repression that may come.

What is needed now is national support for local dissenters akin to the civil rights movement’s national support for local fights against Jim Crow.

Petocz and the students of Flagler County, after all, are not alone. On January 31, students, faculty, alumni and parents of New College protested DeSantis’s appointment of conservative trustees (including Rufo) to the board. On February 23, thousands of Florida college students participated in a walkout protesting a bill that would enable schools to share health information about transgender students with the state, among other things. And on March 6, the University of South Florida’s chapter of Students for a Democratic Society occupied a building in protest of DeSantis’s education agenda, for which campus police attacked and arrested some. What those students had to gain was best summarized by one of the action’s organizers, Kaily LaChapelle, who told a reporter that the protest was “the first time I felt people actually … supported me and respected me.” These students’ efforts to regain control of their education, LaChapelle correctly suggests, have the potential to create a more egalitarian and just education system.

This more democratic educational system is precisely what right-wingers aim to prevent. HB 999, the newest piece of model legislation loudly championed by Rufo and his ilk, is currently under consideration in Florida. It would mandatorily cut “any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality, or any derivative major or minor of these belief systems,” remove all DEI initiatives, gut tenure protections, and provide a governor-appointed board the ability to intervene directly in all hiring and curriculum review at the state’s public colleges and universities. The passage of such a bill would send a message that every institution of public higher education in the country is a Republican majority away from being completely and totally dismantled from the inside out.

Republicans know that there is a struggle afoot for U.S. education. They’re using every tool at their disposal to push their agenda, and their efforts are being rewarded. When DeSantis claimed a draft of the College Board’s AP African American Studies curriculum contravened state law, the College Board subsequently removed a number of thinkers from the curriculum — some of whom were real radicals whose thought could transform U.S. democracy. In this and other efforts, Republicans seek to not only prevent radical gains in the education system but also roll back the limited progress that has been made since Brown v. Board of Education.

The Republicans persecuting education now exploit the gap between the perceived and actual power of so-called critical race theory, of the humanities, and of schools. These attacks come after decades of funding cuts for public universities and schools, and legal assaults on the labor laws that buttress teachers’ unions. They also occur amid a spike in attrition rates among public school teachers and a decline in undergraduates majoring in the humanities that coincides with decreased funding for those departments. Neoliberal governance of educational institutions, in other words, has paid lip service to the importance of culture and diversity at the same time as it has underpaid school employees and underfunded key programs. Republicans smell blood in the water. They have stirred up a moral panic as a means of seeking to take control of a vulnerable institution at a moment when leftists are attempting to do the same in pursuit of actual equity.

The right’s assault on education is an attempt to reproduce a hierarchy that continues to dispossess and marginalize some while elevating others.

While the moral panic around critical race theory is in part a means of activating an electoral base to buttress Republican control of local legislatures, like all moral panics, it stems from a repressed anxiety. As Marx wrote, “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Though the right wing today attacks critical race theory in name, it draws its playbook from the mid-century anti-communist frenzy. In this, the educational system played a pivotal part. As Tera Hunter recently wrote in The Nation, the state of Florida is no stranger to enforcing explicitly anti-communist pedagogy; for decades, the state required a course on anti-communism in public schools.

Republicans today continue to stir up Cold War, anti-communist fears as a means of convincing their base to support their agenda. “We’ve just stepped over socialism,” Donald Trump remarked in November 2022; “we’re into communism.” Yet, there is a particularly terrifying farcicality to this iteration of a red scare sans reds. Whether the IWW in the first red scare or the CPUSA during the second, the specter of American communism had a material reality; organizations at that scale are almost entirely absent today. The Republican effort to stomp out a resurgent but assuredly vulnerable radicalism, ultimately, is an attempt to make sure it will never grow.

Even more depressing, this third red scare has arisen in a time when capitalism is seemingly the only game in town. This is an era, after all, in which a majority of House Democrats support a bill declaring the “evils” of socialism, cannot raise the minimum wage, and force a rail contract on workers desperate for sick days. These failings suggest that the Republican Party is in fact responding to a crisis of capitalism itself.

U.S. public education is a struggling enterprise, but not because of critical race theory, of trans students, or any other conservative boogeyman. Its difficulties are instead rooted in ongoing schemes to underpay employees, break teachers’ unions and trim budgets. Public education struggles because of the devaluation and privatization of one of the few remnants of our public commons.

Republicans stir up fear and claim that their way of life is under assault as a means of enabling their own dominance, which is nothing more than the ability to do harm.

These assaults on Black studies, queerness and socialism are not disconnected. The past red scares always targeted queer people and people of color in the effort to repress communism. Today, the right’s assault on education is an attempt to reproduce a hierarchy that continues to dispossess and marginalize some while elevating others. In so doing, it uses the figure of the child at the expense of real children. Who, after all, could Texas be said to be saving when it threatens to steal trans children from their parents? Not children, but the political careers of Ted Cruz, Greg Abbott, and other conservatives. This is why the assault on schools and on young people comes at the same time as legislation that disenfranchises, and false claims about stolen elections. Each speech, each bill is an admission that the Republicans are vulnerable, in the same way that the mass disenfranchisement and violence that constituted Jim Crow was an attempt to prevent a power structure from being overturned. Like the Dixiecrats, Republicans stir up fear and claim that their way of life is under assault as a means of enabling their own dominance, which is nothing more than the ability to do harm.

On the second anniversary of the failed January 6 insurrection, Rufo tweeted, “Left-wing radicals have spent the past fifty years on a ‘long march through the institutions,’” adding, “We are going to reverse that process, starting now.” As much as we can frame this front as one more in a seemingly ceaseless culture war, the right increasingly understands that this bellicose rhetoric is appropriate to a struggle that has always been about the power which underlies culture as such. Those of us who are opposed to such brazen assaults on our public commons would do well to heed this lesson ourselves. A war must be fought to be won.

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