In a marked victory for regressive politics in Texas, a bill banning the teaching of critical race theory in high schools is now almost certain to become law after passing the Senate.
“House Bill 3979 makes certain that critical race philosophies, including the 1619 founding myth, are removed from our school curriculums statewide. When parents send their children to school, they want their students to learn critical thinking without being indoctrinated with misinformation charging that America and our Constitution are rooted in racism,” Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick (R) said about the passage of the bill.
Efforts from Republicans this session to push back on the advancement of the cultural understanding of whiteness and its continued impact on what we call history have been a main focus for conservatives feeling threatened by “wokeness.” In addition to this ban, the plot to enact an 1836 Project in schools, which is almost certainly Confederate apologia in practice, has been meandering through the legislature.
A deep look at the language of the bill reveals the basic Republican strategy of governance, not only in this specific arena but all the way up to issues like climate change and gender equality. A key word to look for in combing through the history of the bill is “controversy.”
Early in the original House bill, State Rep Steve Toth (R-Spring) was already hard at work tinkering the text in order to make it reflect the idea that critical race theory is some newfangled bit of wokeness run amuck instead of being an established part of most academia for decades. His preferred text, adopted as the first amendment, banned a “particular current event or widely
debated and currently controversial issue” from being taught. Note the inclusion of “widely debated.” This means that as long as regressives can continue to argue loudly enough about something, they get to pretend that the issue is a controversy that doesn’t belong in schools.
For obvious reasons, this has dire implications for a host of other important educational issues. The “controversy” gambit has been a favorite for people that wanted to dismiss the teaching of evolution in school and assign Young Earth Creationism an equal place in the curriculum. The same is easily made true of climate change, current scientific consensus on the gender spectrum, and the long-term effects of slavery.
By passing this law, Republicans fight progress to a stalemate, at least as far as publicly-funded secondary education goes. As long as they can keep arguing against something, no matter how settled a scientific or historical fact it is, they can frame it as too controversial to be in schools. They make the existence of the argument, not the argument itself, the poison pill.
Texas Democrats did manage to mitigate some of the damage. State Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas) added in language shortly before passage by the Senate that made teaching the importance of the Civil Rights Act and constitutional amendments that did away with slavery part of the curriculum. State Sen. José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) tried to add the Holocaust as well as the teaching of the impact of the Fugitive Slave Acts and the Indian Removal Act but failed.
The pushback on Menéndez’s additions shows where Republicans want to draw the line. They are comfortable enough admitting that slavery and racism have existed. Embracing Hispanic heritage (also part of the West amendment) is fine because increasingly Tejanos have become necessary for Republicans to keep the state red. However, digging into the deeper history of how whiteness built our institutions such as policing and political power in a way that continues to this day is off-limits as too much of a threat. As long as lawmakers like Toth can convince others that such teachings are a matter of debate instead of true history, no progress can be made. That appears to be the point.