The growth of off-limit topics at US schools: No talking about racism, gender, communism

Many states have passed legislation prohibiting concepts that promote a ‘negative’ view of the country’s history; many instructors are quitting their jobs

A fourth-grade class at Stratford Landing Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia.
A fourth-grade class at Stratford Landing Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia.The Washington Post (The Washington Post via Getty Im)

In South Carolina, conservative lawmakers are attempting to pass legislation prohibiting teachers from instructing students on any subject that could cause the latter to feel “discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” about their race or sex. In this context, teaching white students about their ancestors’ role in the slave trade, or Jewish students about the horrors of the Holocaust, becomes fraught with difficulty.

The new rules would join 155 so-called “gag orders” already in place in 34 of 50 US states, limiting what teachers can say on topics such as race, gender identity and the history of their country. This is a “full frontal assault” on freedom of expression, says Jeremy Young, senior manager of free expression and education at PEN America, an organization that works to defend freedom of expression through the promotion of literature and human rights. “These are attempts to whitewash America’s past,” he argues. “An instructor has to be extremely careful when talking about politics,” complicating the teaching of concepts such as fascism, racism and anti-Semitism in states with legislation pushed through by Republican governments.

South Carolina is one of the most extreme examples, as homosexuality cannot be mentioned in schools, and neither can references to non-binary pronouns and people (individuals who do not consider themselves to be male or female). If a teacher dares to broach these topics, they may be disciplined or fired. “These regulations control what appears in textbooks and also spread fear among teachers,” adds Young in a telephone conversation.

Young, who is also a historian, notes that one unwanted side effect of such legislation is that teachers are considering quitting or have already left the profession in droves. “Perhaps one of the most perverse cases is that of one school district in Texas, where one trainer suggested that the Holocaust must be dealt with from the point of view of both sides: the executioners and the victims,” he notes. The atmosphere is becoming more hostile every day.

Reward for reporting violators

After last November’s gubernatorial election in Virginia, the triumphant Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin announced that his administration had set up an email address for parents to share their concerns and complaints about teachers and schools if they felt that their fundamental rights were being violated or their children were “not being respected.” Many on the left see this as an attempt to stifle the teaching of what is known as critical race theory. This theory holds that race is a social construct and that racism goes beyond personal prejudice and is a systemic problem within institutions, as the legal system is set up to maintain and encourage white supremacy. The theory asserts that this is why social injustice has not been eradicated despite the achievements of the civil rights movement.

In New Hampshire, a group of mothers is offering a $500 reward to anyone who catches a teacher violating a recently passed state law that forbids any “doctrine” or “theory” that promotes a “negative” version of US history, including the notion that the country was founded on racism due to the slave trade. In addition, the law serves to ensure the “loyalty” of teachers against those who would propagate “subversive doctrines,” it claims. In Indiana a proposed bill advocates that students be taught before an election that “socialism, Marxism, communism, totalitarianism and similar political systems are incompatible with and in conflict with the principles of freedom upon which the United States was founded,” as well as being detrimental to the country.

Identity and sexuality

These “gag laws” hone in on conservatives’ hot-button issues. Each law is different, but most prohibit teachers from discussing non-binary gender or sexuality. They also prevent teachers from debating gay marriage or LGBTQ+ rights. PEN America has highlighted that many of these new rules ask teachers to report children to their parents if they start asking questions about their gender identity. Teachers must therefore hide their own identity or relationship status so as not to violate the law.

These laws date back to the summer of 2020, when a researcher named Christopher Rufo, then working at the conservative Discovery Institute in Seattle, wrote a series of articles where he described alleged indoctrination in schools and programs that sought to turn students into critical race theorists. His work attracted the attention of controversial Fox News host Tucker Carlson, who invited him on his show. The next day, Mark Meadows, then chief of staff in Donald Trump’s administration, let Carlson know that the president had shown interest in Rufo’s ideas.

Within days, Rufo entered into talks with the White House and by late summer Trump was signing an executive order prohibiting any state agency from discussing certain ideas as part of employee training. Joe Biden reversed the rule upon his arrival at the White House but the seed has already germinated in several states. “The snowball effect had started to roll,” Young concludes.

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