In April, Cheryl Harris, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, noticed an uptick in citations of her work. Sort of.

“My inbox started being flooded with very bizarre and rabid emails and voicemails attributing things to me that I've never said,” she recalled in a phone interview. “I've been in this scholarly business long enough to know that occasionally, somebody may pick up something that you write and take exception to it. But this had nothing to do with anything I had said, actually.”

Harris’ name was appearing in op-eds purporting to explain critical race theory (CRT), a decades-old vein of scholarship that she has contributed to and taught.

Critical race theory studies racism at the systemic level, examining how policies, laws and court decisions can perpetuate racism even if they are ostensibly neutral or fair. Since its emergence in the late 1970s and 1980s, the discipline has expanded to include researchers in sociology, education and public health.

It has lately come under fire by Republican lawmakers who assert critical race theory is un-American and racist, and argue it will further divide the country. Legislators in at least 15 states have introduced measures this session that would prohibit the teaching of critical race theory or related concepts in all publicly funded schools, sometimes including penalties such as dismissal of teachers or defunding of school districts, despite no evidence that it is being taught in any public school.

The measures are part of a full-throttle conservative push to restrict discussions of racism and inequity in the name of defending American institutions. A toolkit created by Heritage Action for America, an affiliate of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, states that “CRT weakens the public and private bonds that create trust and allow for civic engagement.”

The Center for Renewing America, a conservative think tank, created model critical race theory legislation for lawmakers to introduce that alleges equity, intersectionality, social justice, land acknowledgments and “woke” are racist terms. Both documents misstate the intent of critical race theory.

Christopher Rufo, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a right-leaning think tank, has written several articles disparaging critical race theory and has suggested that it could become a rallying cry for Republicans. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory,’” he tweeted in March. “We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.” Rufo was not available for comment.

Critics of the bills argue that the legislation amounts to censorship and worry that the broad language of the measures could chill the free speech of educators and students, as well as stunt the antiracist efforts inaugurated by last year’s nationwide protests against police violence and racial injustice.

“This isn’t just about critical race theory as a body of work. This is about any form of antiracist speech, because these are also the jurisdictions that are trying to pass restrictions on protest,” Harris said, referring to new curbs on public demonstrations that Republicans have pushed in response to Black Lives Matter.

The Trump administration launched the first broadside against critical race theory, issuing a September 2020 Office of Management and Budget memorandum that called for the cancellation of any federal spending related to critical race theory, white privilege or “any other training or propaganda effort.” Russ Vought, then director of the OMB and now president of the Center for Renewing America, wrote the memo.

That move was followed by an executive order later that month banning “divisive concepts” in federal workforce training. Citing training materials used in contractor courses discussing race taught at the U.S. Department of the Treasury and federal laboratories, as well as a Smithsonian museum graphic about whiteness, the order did not mention critical race theory by name but warned of a “malign ideology” that promoted racism, sexism and scapegoating.

A California district court blocked the order in December, and President Joe Biden later rescinded it, but Republican state legislators have renewed the charge.

Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican, said in a phone interview that teaching critical race theory in schools would create “another great divide in America.” He introduced a bill that would ban critical race theory from all publicly funded schools, including universities, because it “identifies people or groups of people, entities, or institutions in the United States as inherently, immutably, or systemically sexist, racist, anti-LGBT, bigoted, biased, privileged or oppressed.”

Noncompliance would result in up to 10% of funding being cut until the violation was resolved. The measure died in committee, but Seitz plans to submit a new bill in next year’s session, he said.

Tennessee state Sen. Brian Kelsey also argued that critical race theory will split Americans. “Critical Race Theory creates divisions within classrooms and will cause irreversible damage to our children who hold the future of our great country,” he wrote in an emailed statement to Stateline.

When the Tennessee House and Senate’s anti-critical race theory bills went to conference committee, Kelsey proposed additional amendments, citing his days in law school and claiming to “know [critical race theory] very well.”

The resulting Tennessee bill, which was signed into law last month by Republican Gov. Bill Lee, bars schools from broaching a wide range of topics such as the existence of systemic racism, privilege, oppression and any criticism of meritocracy. It also grants the commissioner of education undefined discretion to withhold state funds from schools found to be in violation of the law.

“Instead of broadening our worldview, this legislation narrows it,” Jenny Miller, an elementary school librarian in Camden, Tennessee, told Chalkbeat. “How will this come across to teachers of color or those that are contemplating entering the profession?”

Bills introduced in Michigan and West Virginia also would impose penalties. Michigan’s measure would bar, in part, teaching that the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution or the United States are “fundamentally racist.” Schools that violate the measure would see up to 5% of their funding withheld.

West Virginia’s is particularly far-reaching, declaring a “teacher may be dismissed or not reemployed for teaching, instructing or training any student to believe any of the divisive concepts.” Its definitions of divisive concepts include “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.” Critical race theory advocates none of these beliefs.

Critics are alarmed by the latitude of these bills.

“Their language is broad enough,” said Emerson Sykes, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, “that an overzealous investigator or enforcer could easily implicate all kinds of discussions that are about what has actually happened in this country and what's actually ongoing.

“Even asking students those types of questions on an exam could hypothetically run afoul of some of the really broad language in these laws.”

School boards, textbook publishers, lawmakers and parents have long tussled over how American history should be taught in schools, clashing over the causes of the Civil War, the Vietnam War and the merits of multicultural education, among many other topics. But the critical race theory controversy has little connection to existing curricula or school district policies.

There is no evidence that critical race theory, as defined by its originators, has been taught in any public school. Nor has a school board in any state cited critical race theory as an element of its curriculum.

A March joint poll by market research firm Leger and The Atlantic found that 71% of respondents had never heard of critical race theory, but 48% of all respondents did not think critical race theory should be taught in U.S. schools. It also found that 75% were not aware of a controversy in their state regarding critical race theory.

West Virginia state Sen. Mike Azinger, a Republican, demurred when asked for specific evidence of critical race theory’s footprint in his state. “How much WV education is infected, at this point, is unknowable and moot, really,” he wrote in response to emailed questions. “CRT is coming like a freight train into public education, government, corporate boardrooms, and — most ominously and dangerously — into the church.”

Rep. Seitz of Missouri named The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which was the original target of his legislation, as the extent of his engagement with critical race theory or similar subjects. The 1619 Project, a collection of essays that examines the deep roots of racism in the United States, has drawn fire from historians for some inaccuracies and from conservatives for not being patriotic enough.

The critical race theory cited by Republican lawmakers and conservative pundits is often nebulous, comprising equity and diversity initiatives, workplace trainings, school curricula, reading lists and selectively edited quotations of critical race theorists.

“They don’t name specific texts,” said Adrienne Dixson, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor of education, in a phone interview. Dixson teaches critical race theory courses and has published a number of academic papers on it.

Marvin Lynn, dean of Portland State University’s College of Education and also a critical race theorist and instructor, argued that critical race theory has seized the attention of legislators because it’s “a provocative term” that evokes a sense of challenge, especially to people unfamiliar with it.

Lynn, a former public school teacher in New York City and Chicago, described his introduction to critical race theory, after years struggling to connect with students in classrooms using traditional teaching methods, as revelatory.

“I remember being in a classroom teaching, and being so excited about Gloria Ladson-Billings’ work,” he said, referring to the writings of the seminal critical race theory education scholar, “because what it did was it articulated for me an approach to teaching Black and brown kids successfully, in a way that emphasized their academic knowledge, promoted them and advanced them as leaders but also ensured that they had a healthy sense of themselves as folks of color.”

Lynn is describing a method of teaching — pedagogy — rather than a curriculum, a distinction that has been muddled by GOP legislators.

The primary sponsor of Texas’ anti-critical race theory bill, Republican state Rep. Steve Toth, for instance, read a passage from Ladson-Billings on the House floor that he baselessly suggested could be a lesson plan. “Do you want our Texas kids to be taught that the system of government in Texas and the United States is nothing but a cover-up for white supremacy?” he asked. The Texas bill passed the legislature and is now headed to GOP Gov. Greg Abbott. Toth did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sykes of the ACLU noted that lawmakers do have the power to determine school curricula. “Under normal circumstances, deciding which books and which topics and those sorts of things is a part of their work,” he said. “But this sort of targeted animus towards a particular set of ideas, and even a particular set of authors, is where it crosses the line, I think, into sort of animus and discrimination.”

Dixson, who was a public school teacher in Louisiana before becoming a professor, worries about students’ access to information.

“I think we have to be really wary about legislating ideas that people can engage in,” she said, “because what they're doing is saying, ‘You can't know this. You can't think about this. You can't talk about this question.’ That's fascist.”

Azinger of West Virginia and Kelsey of Tennessee did not respond to requests for comment on the free speech ramifications of their legislation.

UCLA’s Harris shared Dixson’s concerns about fairness and access. Email deluges and stress aside, she pointed out that as a tenured professor, she had the resources to weather this blitz. “[But] what happens to a high school teacher?” she asked.

“What's going to happen to the young people who are hungry for information and knowledge, and are now finding it blocked off by this?”

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