The racial discourse in America often takes on a sort of black-white dichotomy, and panic over “critical race theory“is no different. We have seen images of angry white parents during protests, demanding a ban on teaching CRT, in all grades, from kindergarten to middle school. We have seen teaching bans writing Martin Luther King or reading books on Ruby Bridges, basically any discussion of historical or current racism.
Still, we shouldn’t overlook how this fabricated moral panic is affecting Native American communities. Many laws passed by state legislatures led by the GOP include language that has a direct effect on the education of Indigenous peoples, colonization, Western expansion, Indigenous sovereignty, and more. Rebecca Nagle, Cherokee writer, activist and host of This earth podcast, said the panic over CRT is just the latest version of an old backlash.
“I feel like the fear that the story will be told more accurately has been around for a long time,” Nagle said, citing recoil against things like The New York Times‘Project 1619, the removal of Confederate statues, or efforts to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day instead of Columbus Day. “For a long time in the United States, there has been a reluctance to tell the fullness of our story, the good and the bad.”
Part of the reason the panic over CRT makes so much sense is that the term has been transformed into a nebulous, catch-all scarecrow – encompassing anything to do with diversity, inclusion, ethnic studies. and a range of race-related topics that make parents uncomfortable. . This has happened for other terms, like “wake up, “eg. If these worried parents were initiated into panic by the conservative and right-wing media, they may well be both terrified of the CRT and unable to explain precisely what it is.
“I think what’s going on across the country is people don’t generally understand what critical race theory is,” said Elizabeth Rule, assistant professor of critical race studies, gender and culture at American University and a registered member of Chickasaw Nation. “Many people mistakenly present it as a teaching that blames individuals, and others fear that it is a tool to create division between communities.”
Nagle argued that concern and moral outrage towards the feelings of students in school environments appear very selective. As an example, she pointed out research which shows the detrimental effects of Indigenous themed mascots on Indigenous communities, especially youth. Rule explained how the general lack of understanding of Indigenous history and culture affects these communities.
“There is a significant portion of our population that fundamentally does not understand who the aboriginal people are in this country,” Rule said. “Some think the Native Americans are all dead and gone. I have had people who did not know that Aboriginal people still exist today. (Nagle had similar experiences, recounting a time when a woman said, “I thought we killed you all?”) This lack of understanding, ”Rule added.
With states imposing broad limits on how educators across the country can teach accurate American history, these laws and prohibitions will only further foster a freezing effect through schools and classrooms across Indian country.
“You see this serious lack of inclusion among Aboriginals at all levels,” Nagle says. “You can go to law school and not learn about tribal sovereignty or what a federally recognized tribe is. You can learn all three branches of government when it comes to civics, but most Americans don’t know what a tribe is and what it means legally.
Maggie Blackhawk, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and professor of constitutional law and federal Indian law at New York University, echoed Nagle. Blackhawk said these laws and prohibitions would only add to the feelings of exclusion, marginalization and erasure that many Native Americans already experience when entering the American education system.
“You don’t have to have a law to erase Indigenous history from most classrooms, it doesn’t already exist,” Blackhawk said. “Instead, public schools have for many years been teaching a Thanksgiving story that was fabricated in the late 19th century. In Oklahoma, schools held land grabbing drills where students claimed land, which was a form of deep dispossession and breaking treaty promises. So it is even stranger to prohibit by law something that is not in the program.
Blackhawk suggested that due to Indigenous sovereignty, there is a small subset of Indigenous students and teachers who will be less affected – those who teach and attend schools run by tribal governments. But about 90 percent of Native American students attend regular public schools.
What makes the moral panic over CRT so exhausting is that it exacerbates the racial inequalities and divisions in education that it is supposedly intended to eliminate. It fosters a cynical understanding of what children, especially white children, are ready to learn.
When a young person discovers his country, he inevitably goes through a form of cognitive dissonance – reconciling the good and bad facts of history. Especially for African American and Native American students, it is virtually impossible to learn more about American history and not question it. Black and indigenous children must sit in classrooms across the country where they learn “both sides” of slavery and civil war, or to value Christopher Columbus. When your ancestors were enslaved or dispossessed, your relationship to these facts is much more complicated – and this dissonance is not so easily resolved by American exceptionalism or a patriotic agenda. In many ways, opponents of critical race theory use universalist language to specifically protect white children from having to grapple with issues that children of black, indigenous and other descent have always faced.
“Because of who Native American and African American children are, they must learn to embrace their country, even with its flaws,” Blackhawk said. “This is something I teach in my constitutional law class with Frederick Douglas, claiming that the Constitution is an anti-slavery document. He can both be within a nation state that ignores his humanity for much of his life, and then take that country and that founding document and adopt it for himself.
Blackhawk, like Nagle and Rule, thinks the panic around CRT is a fabricated diversion. But each of these academics, writers, and activists also see the fear of CRT as a battle in a greatest political and cultural war– one in which, once again, the indigenous communities found themselves without much to say on the matter.