Mississippi’s assault on public education is much deeper than critical race theory

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Dr. Ivory Phillips

Part I

In January, there was a public hearing on the Mississippi Department of Education’s proposed changes to the social studies standards for the state’s public schools. That hearing provided an opportunity for citizens to express themselves regarding the proposed changes. Perhaps even more significantly, it turned out to be a stage whereon vocal white supremacists assaulted the teaching of social studies material that deal with slavery, Jim Crow, and other forms of racial oppression; it enabled them to generally espouse “white-washing” history so that school children do not learn of their misdeeds. 

Meanwhile, that assault was being matched by a piece of legislation, Senate Bill 2113, that claimed to forbid the teaching of critical race theory in the state’s public schools, community colleges, and universities. Both the House speaker and the governor had already spoken out against the teaching of critical race theory. As the bill had been presented, it quickly garnered the support of the Republican legislators. When the bill came to the floor of the Senate, however, in an unprecedented and very heroic move, all of the state’s Black senators filed out of the Senate chamber. They walked out as a symbol of protest because the Senate has a more than 2/3 Republican majority, making it impossible to defeat the bill. As that same bill was taken up by the House, every Black representative not only spoke out against it, but voted their opposition as well. Again, however, with a more than 2/3 majority in the house, the Republicans carried the day, and the bill now will go to Governor Tate Reeves for his signature.

The actions of the Black lawmakers, and the handful of their white Democratic colleagues, by their actions, dramatized that the assault is clearly a racial and a partisan attack. It is a reminder of the position that was taken by such conservatives during Reconstruction and again following the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision.

This latest assault will have a detrimental effect on public education in several ways. Although it styles itself as an act to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in the public schools, community colleges and universities, nowhere does it even define what it means by critical race theory, which on its face would make it impossible to enforce. The law, nevertheless, will be implemented as an assault against anyone who tries to teach lessons about the negative racial history of this state and country in the public schools of Mississippi. 

Among other things, the law will undoubtedly drive some excellent history scholars out of the field of teaching. It will put a damper on the teaching of others who fear trying to teach the truth about the racial history of the state and country because it may get them fired. The vagueness of the law will enable open-season to be declared on teachers who try to teach the truth. Conservative judges may support the effort. Enforcement of the law will mean the miseducation of generations of students, making it much less likely that the problem of racism will be diminished. Finally, the passage of the law will enhance the chances of politicians with strong racist views getting elected or reelected. That, in turn, will enable them to pass even more such legislation.

This assault on public education is most visibly carried out by people who have no qualms about opposing democracy as a governing concept. They suggest that democracy means or leads to mob rule. In this case, they are referring to Black and other undesirable people voting. Many of the people leading the charge against the teaching of genuine history claim to want to spare white children from feeling bad or guilty about how their ancestors may have treated Black people, while not giving a second thought to how Black children may feel about their past or present treatment.

In the attempt to root-out the teaching of critical race theory, many white activists have threatened and attacked teachers, administrators, board members, librarians and opposing politicians. This has led to the banning of books, the changing of curricula, the firing of teachers, and the ousting of school board members. There is likely to be more of this around the country in the coming days. All of it results in the lessening of the quality of education for the students. It also results in a lessening of respect for education and the schools themselves.

The actions of the vocal white supremacists are supported and egged on by the passage of laws such as Senate Bill 2113. The bullying, threats, and violence of the activists in the streets, in turn, gradually and maybe even not so gradually destroys the schools or at least support for them. 

Make no mistake about it, the current assault is not so much about the teaching of critical race theory as it is about blocking the kind of education that can transform and uplift the masses of the people who are not a part of the dwindling white population. 

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Mississippi’s assault on public education is much deeper than critical race theory

By Dr. Ivory Phillips
March 17, 2022