Members Only | January 25, 2023 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
A huge step toward controlling the academy by Ron DeSantis
The anti-critical race theory panic just won't die, writes Mia Brett.
As I explained for the Editorial Board, CRT is a sociolegal framework to analyze ways in which our legal system perpetuates racism.
It’s not anti-white people.
It’s not about making white people feel guilty.
It won’t hurt white people or bring about white genocide.
Yet Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and others are treating CRT as if it were a major threat to American life. Not satisfied with controlling k-12 education, many Republicans are now seeking to make the public university system an arm of government control in order to outlaw CRT as well as violate trans people’s rights.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say this is directly out of Nazi laws passed in 1933. Though if this Republican effort is successful, you might not be able to learn things like that anymore.
Ridiculous but effective
In 1933, when Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor, the Nazi party took power in Germany and got down to the business of passing laws to enforce political narratives and other ways of thinking.
Two laws were passed in 1933 that successfully targeted German universities. The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service banned “non-aryans” (with a few exceptions) from civil service positions that included university professors.
The Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities set strict limitations on the number of Jewish students permitted to attend public and private schools and universities in Germany.
The fascist control of education didn’t stop there. It included reforms to promote German art, philosophy and even “Aryan physics.” Jewish intellectualism and works portraying an “un-German spirit” were purged. Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Karl Marx, Franz Kafka and hundreds of modernist or expressionist artists were deemed decedent, depraved, deviant and degenerate.
Einstein and his theory of relativity represented the Jewish subversion of physics and was driven out of the academy. Only pure German thinkers and early Greek and Roman art unsullied by Jewish influence could be taught in German universities.
Such ridiculous responses to intellectual and artistic pursuits was ridiculous then and it’s ridiculous now. Relativity and modernism weren’t perversions of science and art any more than CRT and African American history are undermining the United States.
Though ridiculous, these arguments work.
Fascist control of the academy absolutely serves to perpetuate nationalist propaganda and influence the citizenry to be angry and uninformed in ways that serve the fascist government.
If you know anything about history or racism, DeSantis sounds unhinged, but his plan is working. Twenty-eight university presidents have promised to stop teaching undesirable subjects.
Understanding, not belief
While DeSantis’ Stop Woke Act, which restricts race-related education in workplaces, schools and colleges, has been temporarily blocked by the courts, the governor has found a new way to restrict academic freedom in Florida’s universities.
DeSantis has asked for data on all courses involving race, and all resources spent on CRT or DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion).
He and supporters of the anti-CRT panic claim critical race theory is a “trendy” ideology that teaches people to feel guilt or shame based on their race. (It doesn’t – CRT is about systemic injustice, not individual guilt). Therefore, he justifies this attempt at fascist control in universities by claiming students need to be protected from dangerous teachings on race. (Or, really, any teaching on race, as he is also banning AP African American Studies in high school.)
Fearing that DeSantis will go through their resources with a fine-toothed comb, 28 presidents of Florida state universities and community colleges have agreed to eliminate CRT education.
Technically, their statement regarded teaching “that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality.”
Thing is, I don’t know of any concept taught in college that compels belief. Biology teachers will happily teach evolution to creationists as long as those students engage with the material in good faith and answer the questions correctly, according to evolution.
Similarly, CRT isn’t something one “believes” in.
It’s an analytical framework – a tool. I suppose if you don’t “believe” racism exists or that racism is a systemic issue, it’s unlikely you’ll agree with CRT, a useful analytical framework or not.
But again – belief is not required to do well in class. I’ve taught CRT in many classes and I have no idea what my students believe in at the end of the semester. I only know what they understand.
A request for data on trans healthcare at universities has also been submitted by DeSantis. It’s not clear what such information could be used for, but I think we can agree it won’t be good.
It’s so reminiscent of Nazi Germany that it’s hard to believe republicans aren’t purposefully following a Nazi playbook.
A chilling erosion
In 1919, a Jewish doctor opened the Institute for Sexual Research in Berlin. Dr. Hirschfeld amassed a huge collection of books on gender and sexuality. In 1930, the first modern gender reassignment surgery was performed there. In 1933, Nazis destroyed the clinic and burned the books inside, destroying an immense amount of important research on gender non-conforming and gay people.
Hirschfeld’s likeness was reproduced in Nazi propaganda. Trans and gay people were sent to concentration camps along with Jews and Romani for the crime of polluting the Aryan race.
Anti-CRT bills targeting universities have been passed in Iowa, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Mississippi, South Dakota and Idaho. Most of these laws prohibit requiring that students “believe” in CRT or anything on a list of divisive concepts, which shouldn’t be a problem because professors don’t care what students believe.
But these bills are a chilling erosion of academic freedom and a huge step toward fascist academic control in the service of rightwing narratives. While it’s still legal to teach history, remember where such efforts have led and take them seriously.
Mia Brett, PhD, is the Editorial Board's legal historian. She lives with her gorgeous dog, Tchotchke. You can find her @queenmab87.