In a way, America’s classrooms have always been auxiliary battlegrounds for the country’s larger culture wars.
During Reconstruction, as the formerly enslaved, craving education, began that journey for themselves and their children, Negro schools became a favorite target of white terrorists. Many of those schools were burned to the ground.
For instance, as the Equal Justice Initiative chronicled, “In fall 1870, white mobs burned ‘nearly every colored church and schoolhouse’ in Tuskegee, Alabama. In Calhoun County, Alabama, that year, a white mob outraged at the growth of a local Black school lynched four Black men.”
Long after 1870, for decades, almost all education in the South and across much of the country was racially segregated. School districts fed students a full plate of racial propaganda and white supremacy with ahistorical history books that downplayed and mischaracterized slavery, barely mentioned instruments of white terror like lynching, glorified and recast the Civil War and, as The Montgomery Advertiser put it, “celebrated the violent overthrow of democratically elected, multiracial governments.”
America’s larger racial battle was playing out in the classroom.
When schools were finally ordered to integrate, that directive was met with vehement, violent opposition. One of the arguments against it was a fear of miscegenation and the production of a race of “mongrels.”
A main pillar of white supremacy is patriarchal sexism: White men justify their aggression and violence by claiming that they are merely protecting vulnerable and “defenseless” white women and children. This can, in the mind of the white terrorist, make his savagery and chicanery feel like chivalry.
And so our classrooms make perfect battlegrounds. There, guilt can be disguised as protecting the innocent.
While previous fights revolved around desegregation and busing, textbooks and curriculums or equitable school funding, the current battle is over what can be taught. Some conservatives want to call it a backlash against the teaching of the obscure concept of critical race theory, but it isn’t. The teaching of this theory in grade schools was almost nonexistent. It was a construct born in law schools. This is actually about something more fundamental: whether or not schools should teach a full and accurate history of race in America, knowing that it might cause white children discomfort as they are confronted with the reality of what some white people have done.
These conservative objectors are essentially recasting the campaign to continue teaching a white-centered, laudatory version of America’s racial history as an effort to protect innocent white children from distress.
You can see the same themes in the conservative uproar over trans people. For months, Republicans have tried to bar trans women from participating in girls’ sports in schools. GOP efforts, along with other anti-LGBTQ laws passed by Republican state legislatures this year, led the Human Rights Campaign to dub 2021 “the worst year for anti-LGBTQ legislation in recent history.”
These bills are rooted in white supremacist ideas. As the Southern Poverty Law Center put it:
For far-right extremists, the increased visibility of transgender people is a sign of the growing “degeneracy” of the nation, wrought by “cultural Marxists,” leftists and Jews as part of an assault on white, Christian families and strict gender roles. They believe that trans people, like immigrants and nonwhites, are hastening the destruction of an idealized white, Western culture.
A panic of white masculinity and an ambient fear of white displacement and diminishment was once again disguised as a defense of girls.
This is similar to what happened in Florida in the 1950s when the state established a committee to go after the NAACP and link the organization to communism. When that effort failed, the committee turned its eye to rooting out gay men and lesbians in schools “on grounds that sexual and political perversion went hand in hand,” as The Tampa Bay Times put it.
Again, disguising a political agenda as a disinterested effort to defend children.
Now we are seeing classrooms become a battleground over masking and vaccinations, and some demonstrations over the issue have grown violent. At first blush, the virulence of the reaction to mask mandates in schools might seem like nothing more than the usual anti-government theatrics, ginned up by right-wing politicians and commentators who have derided mask wearing as an infringement on personal liberties.
But as the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed out, “Protests against public safety measures in the pandemic created opportunities for crossover with a variety of right-wing extremist groups — militia, Boogaloo, QAnon, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers showing up.”
These groups claim they are protecting the rights of parents and keeping the government from meddling in the relationship between parent and child.
But in the end, children are just being used because the naked truth isn’t cute: Right-wing extremists and sometimes avowed white supremacists make people vulnerable and prey on the vulnerable, so they need the appearance of defending the vulnerable to balance the scales.