State Rep. Walt Blackman is on a crusade to prevent schools anywhere from teaching “critical race theory,” in his bid to unseat Democratic Congressman Tom O’Halleran.
Arizona already has a controversial law barring teachers from teaching anything that says “one race, ethnic group or sex is inherently morally or intellectually superior to another race, ethnic group or sex.”
Moreover, no K-12 districts in the state currently say they teach “critical race theory,” which refers to a university-based theory suggesting racism has deep roots in laws, institutions and customs in the U.S.
However, the first-term state lawmaker says the U.S. must wage war on critical race theory.
“It ignores the words and lessons of the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr.,” wrote Blackman in a fundraising appeal this week. “It will teach the next generation to hate America and try to destroy what unites us as Americans. Democrats and far-left teacher unions want to push this radical ideology in our schools, mandate it on our teachers, and force it onto our children. We can’t allow this to spread to schools around the country. Join my effort to defeat this brainwashing of our children.”
Blackman currently represents Rim Country and the White Mountains in the state legislature. He’s hoping to move up to represent Congressional District 1, which includes Flagstaff, the Navajo Reservation, southern Gila County, the White Mountains, much of eastern Arizona and much of Pinal County. It remains one of the most competitive congressional districts in the state.
Critical race theory dates back some 40 years and argues that racism doesn’t stem so much from individual prejudice as from deeply embedded legal systems and policies. The basic concept grew out of work by legal scholars Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw and Richard Delgado in the 1970s and 1980s.
The theory focuses on things like government redlining of minority neighborhoods that made it much harder for people in those areas to get mortgage loans from banks, zoning laws that make it hard to build affordable housing, school segregation, inequities in the criminal justice system, employment and other areas. Adherents of critical race theory point to examples in schools, like lower per-student funding for majority black and Latino school districts, higher rates of in-school discipline of black students, barriers to admission to gifted programs and top-ranked high schools.
This approach attempts to explain the numerous, well-documented disparities based on race. For instance, black women are three times as likely to die giving birth than white women, blacks have double the poverty rate as whites, only 40% of blacks or Native Americans start college versus 64% of whites, black households have $40,000 compared to $68,000 for whites, 44% of black and 49% of Hispanic families own homes compared to 74% of whites and black men are 2.5 times as likely to be shot by police as white men.
Conservative organizations — notably the Heritage Foundation — have long been critical of this focus on alleged institutionalized racism — saying that the concept leads to a focus on group identity over universal shared traits, divides people into the “oppressed” and the “oppressors” and encourages intolerance.
Critics of the theory also point to similar statistics showing that Asian Americans do better than whites on many of those same measurements, which suggests cultural, educational and family traits may account for some disparities more readily than race.
However, almost no K-12 schools offer anything approaching formal critical race theory analysis in their classrooms.
The growing effort to crack down on teachers who discuss racism in class has spawned a host of recent lawsuits. Many educators argue the laws will have a chilling effect, prompting teachers to shy away from any discussion of race — including the root cause of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement and other topics. Moreover, they argue the laws infringe on the free speech rights of teachers.
Critics counter that teachers in the classroom are functioning as government employees and cite precedents that give government the right to limit what employees can say on the job. Previous case law has crafted exemptions from those restrictions for university faculty, but not for K-12 public school faculty.
So far, seven states — including Arizona — have banned mentioning specific race-related topics in the classroom and 20 other states are considering such laws.
The Arizona law threatens fines of up to $5,000 and loss of the teaching credential for teachers who violate its provisions. The ban includes saying things that would make anyone “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” on account of race or ethnicity. The law also bars any assertion that “meritocracy” or “a hard work ethic” are concepts created to oppress people of a particular race.
The Arizona Legislature has clashed with school districts in the past, including in 2010 when lawmakers banned ethnic studies programs in public schools. In that case, the law was intended to block a Mexican-American studies program in the Tucson school district. A judge in 2017 overturned that law, saying it infringed on student free speech rights since the ban on ethnic studies had no legitimate educational basis. Studies showed the Tucson program increased test scores and lowered the dropout rate among Latino students.