Protecting academic freedom nationwide
If you read the pages of the New York Post or turn on Fox News, chances are you will hear voices from the right-wing media decry something called critical race theory (CRT). Somewhere out there in America, you’ll be told, a teacher is using critical race theory to teach white children to hate themselves. In a PTA meeting, you may hear a white parent valiantly trying to “cancel” assigned readings that paint a sordid history of race relations in the United States. Patriotic politicians, you’ll learn, are being wrongly branded as “racists,” by the “liberal woke mob” for fighting the “reverse racism” of CRT.
CUNY faculty and staff are fighting back against this new right-wing thought policing in schools and in the academy. This development isn’t just an act of solidarity, but also an early defense against what some faculty members see as a looming fight over academic freedom in New York City.
The consequences of anti-CRT rhetoric are all too real. EdWeek, which covers K–12 education, recently reported that “since January 2021, 42 states have introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism,” and that 17 states “have imposed these bans and restrictions, either through legislation or other avenues.”
Last year, the Anti-Defamation League noted that CRT has been used as an excuse in new efforts to ban books in public schools around the country. NBC News listed 50 books parents in Texas want to ban, all in the name of fighting CRT, and it also reported that anti-CRT rhetoric is making it harder for teachers to talk about the anti-Black massacre in Buffalo, New York, suggesting that it has had a chilling effect on speech and education.
“Since January 2021, 70 bills intended to impose restrictions on teaching and learning in colleges and universities have been introduced in 28 states,” declared a joint statement from PEN America and the American Association of Colleges and Universities. “Such bills have already become law in seven states. The majority of these restrictions are focused on concepts related to race, racism or gender that legislators regard as divisive or otherwise objectionable. These legislative restrictions infringe upon freedom of speech and academic freedom, constraining vital societal discourse on pressing questions relating to American history, society and culture.”
But what is critical race theory? As the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (NAACP-LDF) puts it, “Critical race theory, or CRT, is an academic and legal framework that denotes that systemic racism is part of American society – from education and housing to employment and health care,” recognizing “that racism is more than the result of individual bias and prejudice,” but rather is “embedded in laws, policies and institutions that uphold and reproduce racial inequalities.”
ATTACK ON SCHOOLS
While CRT is an academic framework most associated with high-level legal scholarship, conservatives have misused the term CRT to label any grade-school curriculum that examines racial injustice in the United States, making it a bogeyman for right-wing pundits and politicians. The NAACP-LDF said, “The term ‘critical race theory’ has been co-opted by opponents as a catchall and rallying cry to silence any discussions about systemic racism, ban the truthful teaching of American history and reverse progress toward racial justice.” The organization added that it has been “unjustifiably used to include all diversity and inclusion efforts, race-conscious policies and education about racism, whether or not they draw from CRT.”
In response to this trend, the CUNY University Faculty Senate (UFS) passed a sweeping resolution, vowing to fight the anti-CRT movement. The UFS resolution “rejects any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate college curriculum on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice, and will stand firm against encroachment on faculty authority by the state legislature, city council, any outside entities or even the board of trustees.” It further stated that the UFS “stands with our K–12 colleagues throughout the country who may be affected by this pernicious legislation when they seek to teach the truth in US history and civics education.”
The resolution also demands that CUNY Chancellor Félix V. Matos Rodríguez and Interim University Provost Daniel Lemons “affirm that they reject any attempts by bodies external to the faculty to restrict or dictate university curriculum on any matter, including matters related to racial and social justice.”
Victoria Chevalier, a UFS Executive Committee member and an associate professor of English at Medgar Evers College, said the resolution was partly a “preemptive strike” against any kind of legislative attacks against academic freedom in regard to critical race theory in the state of New York. “We wanted to get ahead of the political moment,” she said.
Chevalier added that the UFS had a responsibility to speak up about this national issue.
“It’s our job to educate – and reeducate – both CUNY Central and our faculty to become more aware of the connections around social justice issues about what is being called critical race theory but is really a mask against a critical teaching of American history, slavery, and racial difference and all the other differences that are produced.”
Chevalier noted that while the resolution was meant to protect academic freedom from attacks on racial justice education generally, she also believes that critical race theory and related intellectual pursuits need to be protected. Invoking Walter Benjamin’s assertion, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism,” she said that an honest account of history meant dealing with uncomfortable subject matter.
Frank Deale, a professor at the CUNY School of Law, concurred that while the right has misused the term critical race theory, the theory itself should be examined and defended.
“Although Black scholars have always devoted attention to the operations and effects of racism throughout American society and the world, critical race theory was a specific reaction to the failures of white law professors, belonging to the otherwise progressive critical legal studies movement, to engage in systematic analyses of how race functions in specific legal institutions, such as law schools, the courts and other branches of government,” said Deale, who is a member of the PSC’s Academic Freedom and Anti-Racism Committees. “CRT was designed to fill those gaps and has done so, examining the operations of race in the criminal justice system, in housing, employment, education, social welfare, health care and other areas too numerous to identify.”
A FULL HISTORY
Deale continued, “The attacks on CRT are atrocious because of their ignorance and nefarious motivation. Conscious that they are losing their grip on power, white supremacists are attacking anything that they perceive as undermining their hegemony, going so far as removing books from libraries and school curriculums. This is but one step away from burning them and the ideas that they contain, a strategy utilized historically by all right-wing movements, including the Nazis and fascists of 20th-century Europe.”
George Emilio Sanchez, a cochair of the Anti-Racism Committee (ARC) and the former PSC chapter chair at the College of Staten Island, noted that the union could provide more education about what CRT actually is, as the political right has used the phrase so broadly. “We could provide some sort of context for critical race theory,” he said. “A lot of people who are supposedly in support of critical race theory don’t know the history or the context.”
The chairs of the union’s Anti-Racism Committee released a statement: “The ARC cochairs fully support and endorse the UFS resolution regarding the affirmation of academic freedom, and as a total rejection to the proponents . . . and state [legislatures], who have spawned gross mischaracterizations and undermined the tenets of critical race theory, by banning the crucial truth of this country’s history of settler colonialism, racism and gender inequality. The UFS resolution rightly prioritizes academic freedom as an arm of the First Amendment, while also contextualizing the overt intent of Republican state legislatures that have targeted critical race theory as somehow contradicting ‘American values.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. We support this resolution.”
THE ACADEMY’S ROLE
James Blake, president of the Black Faculty and Staff Association at Borough of Manhattan Community College, told Clarion, “The term critical race theory was coined in response to historians who speak out about the need for a critical analysis of American history. Their aim is to foster honest dialogue regarding current racial conditions. However, [the current opposition to] ‘critical race theory’ was coined as a ploy by those want to block the truthful teaching of American history and thereby, reverse progress made toward social and racial justice. CUNY faulty can play a critical role in fighting against the racist forces who want to continue to perpetuate lies and historical falsehoods. We need ‘truth tellers’ who will stand and fight for the right to freely teach the facts about the history of race relations in America.”