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How white supremacy weaponizes ignorance

Racists have always understood that if they can censor what people learn, they can control what people believe.

People talk before the start of a rally against "critical race theory" (CRT) being taught in schools, at the Loudoun County Government Center in Leesburg, Va., on June 12.ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

W.E.B. Du Bois, the brilliant scholar, author, and civil rights activist, recognized the peril that faced a nation riven by racism: “Either the United States will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”

More than a century later, Republicans have chosen ignorance over America.

With every reactionary bill against critical race theory, conservative lawmakers denounce this nation’s unvarnished history for the curated propaganda of white supremacy. It doesn’t matter that even CRT’s most vociferous critics can’t describe exactly what it is; all they know is that racism itself isn’t as much of a problem as is teaching how it inhabits every part of American life or strategizing how to eradicate racism and make democracy whole.


More than 20 states have introduced bills to restrict teaching CRT. One of its founding scholars, Kimberlé Crenshaw, executive director and cofounder of the African American Policy Forum, defines CRT “as a way of seeing how the fiction of race has been transformed into concrete racial inequities. It’s an approach to grappling with a history of white supremacy that rejects the belief that what’s in the past is in the past, and that the laws and systems that grow from that past are detached from it.”

Without that crucial knowledge, injustices are reduced to failures of character or a lack of personal responsibility, because there’s no recognition of the centuries-old racism intentionally baked into institutions and policies.

That’s why Republicans want to stop anything that challenges the sanitized lessons of white aggrandizement most of us learned in school. It’s no accident that so many only recently learned about the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, and still don’t know that this atrocity was not an isolated incident.

So far, several states have passed anti-CRT laws. Arizona’s bill, which failed, would have hit teachers with a penalty of up to $5,000 for discussing “controversial issues of public policy or social affairs” in a manner that fails to “present these issues from diverse and contending perspectives” or give “deference to any one perspective.”


Or what Ray Garofalo Jr., a Republican Louisiana state representative, called “the good, the bad, the ugly” of slavery. He soon withdrew his bill to ban teaching “divisive concepts” on race and sex, but the debate has continued.

Such legislative moves echo former president Trump’s culture-war push for what he called “patriotic education,” which sounded like something borrowed from his former BFF, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. What Trump wanted is what Republican legislators want — education that centers white men as stalwart and heroic.

Much of this conservative backlash is a response to “The 1619 Project,” New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones’s Pulitzer Prize-winning opus that recasts this nation’s origins to the year when enslaved Africans first arrived. Some schools have added it to their curriculums. Republican lawmakers this week reintroduced the Saving American History Act, which would cut off federal funds to schools that teach CRT or “The 1619 Project.”

Yet America’s racist battle against education and its own history isn’t new.

During the antebellum era, most Southern states enacted laws that banned teaching those enslaved to read or write. In “Self-Taught: African American Education in Slavery and Freedom,” Heather Andrea Williams, a University of Pennsylvania professor of Africana studies, writes that Black people who escaped bondage would sometimes dig a pit deep in the woods and obscure it with foliage and vines.


It would be a refuge from slave patrols hunting for runaways, but these spaces also became “pit schools,” where Black people would teach each other to read and write. Even at the risk of being beaten, sold, or killed, Black people would not ignore their thirst for knowledge, as well as the freedom it offered.

Weaponized ignorance, fear, and grievance are pillars of white supremacy; that’s why a majority of Republicans still embrace the Big Lie about the 2020 election. Just as slaveholders feared that enslaved and educated Black people would undermine white dominance, conservatives know that to control what people believe, they must first control what they learn. (This is why truth-adverse Republicans voted against a commission investigating the Jan. 6 deadly Capitol insurrection.)

Thousands of teachers recently signed a pledge against “divisive concepts” laws: “We, the undersigned educators, refuse to lie to young people about US history and current events — regardless of the law.” Yet what’s happening is bigger than what lessons are taught in classrooms. A government so eager to censor education has grown too comfortable with totalitarianism, and its spread won’t stop in schools.

Too much of history is skewed toward the oppressors, not the oppressed. That’s been intentional. White supremacy is the divisive concept that needs to be abolished because favoring its hagiography over the full truth of our history sustains the ignorance that will destroy America.


Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her @reneeygraham.