Parents were horrified during the COVID-19 pandemic as they discovered how left-wing activist teachers were indoctrinating their kids in the classroom.
Critical race theory, a Marxism-based ideology, burst onto the scene in a big way. The left claims that what’s being taught in classrooms isn’t critical race theory. But is that true?
Jonathan Butcher, an education expert at The Heritage Foundation, says critical race theory isn’t just now showing up in classrooms. He contends it’s been there for decades.
“[In the] 1980s, 1990s, you’re having teachers become trained in the idea that America is systemically racist, that we should be teaching students not so much about what they share as Americans, but about their identities, the things that separate them and make them different from each other,” Butcher explained.
Butcher found the trend so troubling, he wrote a book, released April 19, “Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth,” to help expose just how dangerous the ideology is.
He joins the show to talk about the book, reveal the truth about critical race theory in America’s schools, and prescribe some solutions to get it out of curriculums.
We also cover these stories:
- Russian President Vladimir Putin pushes back against Western assertions that Russia is failing in its invasion of Ukraine, saying that his war goals will be “unconditionally fulfilled.”
- New data shows teen suicides increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt signs a bill banning a “nonbinary” option on birth certificates in the state.
Listen to the podcast or read the lightly edited transcript below.
Doug Blair: My guest today is Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, as well as author of the new book “Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth,” available now wherever books are sold.
Jonathan, welcome to the show.
Jonathan Butcher: Great to be here with you.
Blair: Yeah. Let’s talk about critical race theory and if it’s a real thing or not. A common refrain we’ll hear from the left is that critical race theory is a college-level theory. It’s not something that’s being taught in schools at the lower levels. What’s the truth on that?
Butcher: Well, look, there is ample evidence that critical race theory is being used in K-12 schools. That’s one of the reasons I wrote my book, was to dispel this myth and to provide very specific evidence of how critical race theory is being used by educators, where it’s found, and what it looks like.
Very quickly, in the Hayward Unified School District, right across the bay from San Francisco, they issued a memo to their whole school community, that they put online, that said that they would make sure critical race theory stayed in their coursework, especially in the state’s ethnic studies program. They used the words “critical race theory.”
In Portland Public Schools, they have on YouTube, and it’s hosted by the school district, a critical race theory working group that meets and posts their videos online.
You have a new set of teacher certifications standards in Illinois that are completely wrapped around the content of critical race theory, including intersectionality, which is the component of critical race theory that Kimberle Crenshaw, a critical race theorist, added in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and on and on.
Look, the Detroit superintendent just said a couple of months ago, and this was captured on YouTube as well, that critical race theory is most certainly in the content of Detroit schools.
Blair: Now, you mentioned my wonderful hometown of Portland, Oregon. It doesn’t shock me in the slightest that critical race theory is being taught there. But you mentioned also that this is being taught at all levels of education K-12. Are we seeing this being taught in kindergarten, that critical race theory is being taught to children who don’t even know how to read yet?
Butcher: That’s right. There’s even an organization called Woke Kindergarten, and they have lessons that are little videos that teach things like color recognition, letters, and numbers using snippets from either Black Lives Matter riots or other demonstrations that advertise transgender content or racially charged material, even general material that is oppositional to police, giving the impression that the police are always oppressive. This is what they use to teach letters and numbers. It’s K-12.
But an important part of my book, and something that I really wanted to get across, is that we’ve talked for a long time about the free speech crisis on college campuses, at least since 2015 in recent years, but even before that, going back, 2010, that we’ve had this conversation about why free speech is under such assault on college campuses.
Well, if you listen to the words that the students, and even professors, use in their shout-downs, in their demonstrations, in their letters demanding certain racially charged policies, they are using the very words and phrases from the critical race theory lexicon.
The point here is that we don’t just have a free speech crisis on college campuses, we have a racially charged political environment that is trying to view everything around us as the result of some sort of racist intent, and that’s at the core of critical race theory.
Blair: You’ve given a couple examples of what is being taught and at what levels it’s being taught. We also spoke a little bit about how this is maybe something in Portland, Oregon, that would be a very blue city that is teaching this type of content. Is this being taught in maybe red states as well? Is this being taught across the country, or is it more isolated to left-leaning blue states and cities?
Butcher: No, we’ve seen it in states around the country. The University of Oklahoma, for one, is a university that has had some pretty aggressive examples of how critical race theory has entered both the instruction as well as the campus life there. Arizona State University actually has a course on music that is taught by a critical race theory expert.
In the K-12 area—look, Iowa City public schools in Iowa has a whole page devoted to white privilege studies that advertises Ibram Kendi’s work.
We’ve seen this, really, in districts, and it doesn’t matter if we’re talking Madison, Wisconsin, or a place like South Carolina. Even in South Carolina there are districts. I put in a testimony that I wrote just recently examples of critical race theory material that is being used by school districts in South Carolina as well.
Blair: Can you maybe go a little bit more into that? What does that material contain? What are we seeing when we actually get documentation of what’s being taught?
Butcher: A lot of it comes from the same sources. One is the Southern Poverty Law Center’s group Learning for Justice, which has some of the most aggressive K-12 content dealing with accusations of white privilege, the idea that individuals are oppressors just based on the color of their skin. That’s pretty common.
In literature instruction, they even have their own hashtag, #DisruptTexts, where they say that they won’t teach “To Kill a Mockingbird.” They won’t teach Shakespeare. They won’t teach “The Odyssey” or “The Iliad.”
We see in math instruction in California, the Gates Foundation was one of the contributors that helped form a curriculum called Equitable Math, which teaches that capitalism is systemically racist, that math should be about finding inequities in culture, that the right answer is not always as important as an individual’s experience.
You have math curriculum in places like California. You have this in literature studies, really, around the country. Social studies is another area where you have the nation’s largest association of social studies teachers regularly releasing content based on critical race theory’s founding principles. Then, of course, we haven’t even talked about the 1619 Project, which also, of course, has this revisionist history running straight down the middle.
Blair: I do want to get into the 1619 Project a little later. But first of all, as I’m hearing you talk about this, it seems like it’s very difficult for people to say it’s not there, but I also ask, how did it get so entrenched? It feels like it’s all across the country. How did it first get established in schools?
Butcher: Well, critical race theory is based on critical legal theory, which came in the 1960s, really, 1970s, which itself was built on something even older called critical theory.
Critical theory is from Germany in the 1920s, and it’s this revitalization of Marxism that combined itself with a Freudian concept around whether or not there is objective truth, which is a long way of saying you’ve got a group of Marxists in Germany who wanted to add Marxism to culture, not just make it a conversation about the conflict between economic classes. They wanted it to affect the way that we live and the arts and other parts of society.
When the critical theorists came to America in 1937 and they settled at Columbia University, they began to affect professors and students in all sorts of areas of study. Law was the first, and so you have critical legal theorists saying things like the goal is to dismantle American law, either piece by piece or all at once. That’s a paraphrase of a quote by a critical legal theorist named Duncan Kennedy.
The critical race theorists built on this idea. They even wrote a book about it, how they were building on critical legal theory.
Critical pedagogy—which is the idea that you take this critical legal theory, critical race theory, and you add it to teacher training programs—came about around the same time. 1980s, 1990s, you’re having teachers become trained in the idea that America is systemically racist, that we should be teaching students not so much about what they share as Americans but about their identities, the things that separate them and make them different from each other.
That’s where, as you move into the 2000s and you start to see policies from—first, Barack Obama’s administration, give you one example, dealing with school discipline, that was very much based around the idea that there should be quotas on the race of students who receive certain discipline in school. That, of course, was tied to what happened at Parkland, 2018.
You can see that it’s sort of a flow. There’s a stream of thought that built on each other and eventually, as it washed over the academy, it was not long before it would wash over K-12 schools as well, because that’s so frequently where both teachers are coming out of teacher training programs, but also the content for teacher training programs, it’s written by academics, it’s written in higher ed, and so it became applied in policy. Then we started to see it more and more frequently in K-12 instruction.
Blair: Absolutely. Now, I’ve had conversations with leftist friends of mine who have said things like critical race theory, or teaching about this kind of stuff in schools, is necessary to teach about the reality of race in America and that, in fact, not teaching it is racist in and of itself. What are your thoughts on that?
Butcher: Well, I think that’s the Orwellian way of describing anti-racism as some sort of redeeming concept. The truth about anti-racist, that term that Ibram Kendi, the spokesperson of critical race theory today, is that, so, if you are not anti-racist, you are a racist.
Well, what does it mean to be an anti-racist? Well, anti-racism believes that capitalism and racism are conjoined twins. It believes that we should have racial discrimination today in hiring practices, in other parts of life where you tip the scales to make up for racism in America’s past. It’s not getting rid of racism, it’s actually putting racism back into American life.
I think that the argument that, “Well, we can’t teach history without critical race theory,” is nonsense. Critical race theory has only been around since the 1980s, 1990s. We were teaching history long before that.
Undoubtedly, we should be paying close attention to saying, “Look, slavery in America’s past was a systemically racist institution.” It was. So were some of the policies that came out of the failed Reconstruction process after the Civil War and then the Jim Crow era.
We can also say, though, that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the civil rights movement, both legally and culturally, said that racism is something that conflicts with our most deeply held ideals of freedom, opportunity, equality under the law.
Critical race theorists reject that. They reject the Civil Rights Act. In addition to building off of critical legal theory, critical race theorists built off of an objection to the Civil Rights Act and the civil rights movement, and they said so.
Derrick Bell, Richard Delgado, they wrote essays saying that. They called it interest convergence, that the only reason civil rights progressed in the United States was to preserve white power. They had a very cynical take on the civil rights movement in the United States.
Blair: In your book, you talk a little bit about the 1619 Project, which is a thing from The New York Times. It’s a collection of essays and materials that establishes 1619, which is the year the first slaves arrived in America, that’s the true founding date of the country, and not 1776, when the Revolution happened. What is the 1619 Project’s staying power? I know that it’s been criticized for being historically inaccurate, but why does it have such staying power?
Butcher: Well, I think it’s, one, clinging to the mainstream media that has such a hold on the American public. We’re talking about The New York Times, which is still a pretty widely read and high-profile publication. I also think they have a movie deal, I think, with Lionsgate. They have quickly moved to take the essays and turn them into a book.
They were campaigning to win the Pulitzer Prize, which, by the way, they did for op-eds and editorials, and not for history, which I think says something in itself. I think it latched onto what are some high-profile outlets in American culture.
I also think that if you don’t look closely, if you only read the headlines or if you only read the abstracts of these essays, you might be convinced that, well, they’re just reminding America of the things that happened in our past that black Americans were subject to.
But once you scratch the surface a little deeper, you start to realize that they’re not just trying to remind us of something, they’re actually trying to change the way that we talk about the past.
They’re not trying to say America was founded on some principles that were betrayed by certain inequitable systems. They actually say that America was faulty from the start, our founding ideals were false when they were written.
There’s an essay about capitalism that’s been roundly criticized for saying that the plantations in the South were at the early days of capitalism, which means that capitalism is based on the slave trade, based on slavery, which is nonsense. The type of bookkeeping and practices that they used for accounting, slavery aside, those were things that came from Italy generations before and different business practices that have been used for a long, long time.
This idea that somehow America is, at root, corrupt or, at root, is systemically racist, that’s the message.
That’s not only historically inaccurate, but it also robs us of the American dream, because we can’t pursue America’s betterment or we can’t pursue making this country live up to its potential. Instead, we have to take it apart, just like that quote from Duncan Kennedy, the critical legal theorist, I used a few moments ago, that they’re not looking to repair something, they’re looking to take something apart.
Blair: Now, that is an important reality to face. America hasn’t been perfect throughout its history. Of course, slavery is an awful part of our history and it should be taught, but there’s always a question of how it should be taught. If critical race theory and the 1619 Project aren’t the way to teach it, how should we be teaching these types of historical blemishes?
Butcher: Well, I think with as much accuracy and fact as we can. I think at the same time that we say that slavery was something that was beginning to weigh down the Southern colonies as you moved into the 19th century, we also need to remind students that Benjamin Franklin and the Quakers were the first political abolitionist movement in the world.
Even though the United States was not the first nation to abolish slavery, we [were], according to Sean Wilentz and some other key historians who have written about this, the first nation that had a political movement to abolish slavery.
I also think that that is the self-correcting mechanism that is a part of our representative system. When you have a policy that contradicts our founding ideals, it simply can’t exist without a serious disruption, which is what the Civil War became.
It’s a shame that it took that long. It’s a shame that it took a war to abolish this terrible institution. Nevertheless, to have a nation formed by people who wanted to govern themselves, which is, of course, unique in and of itself, be able to take an institution, to take a policy that conflicted with the very ideas on which they based the country, and correct it I think speaks very highly of the potential for America to live out its creed.
This was something, I talk about this in my book, that was written about in the 1940s by, actually, someone from Europe named Gunnar Myrdal, who wrote a book called “An American Dilemma.”
He talks about how slavery is ultimately a moral issue. It’s something that bothers Americans in their idle moments prior to the civil rights movement. It was something that people had to wrestle with culturally because it didn’t comport, it didn’t fit with what we felt like the rule of law and equality under the law were built on.
Blair: Do you have any recommendations for materials that parents who are concerned about this type of content, like the 1619 Project or critical race theory in schools, that they can use to teach their children that doesn’t contain that “America is a poisoned fruit” kind of deal that they might be able to use for their kids?
Butcher: Yeah, there’s actually more and more of that being produced today. On The Heritage Foundation’s website, we have our Curricula Resource Initiative, which has a whole list of different products and websites that homeschool families as well as private schools and public school educators can go to to use.
One of the things on that list is the curriculum created by the 1776 Unites project, who have highlighted the different experiences of Americans who are black and who became successful, showed examples of personal responsibility and agency, while also recognizing that they were living during a discriminatory time period, because you can teach this topic by saying both at the same time, that there was a period in which Americans who were black were living under the terrible obstacles of racial discrimination but found ways to become successful anyway.
There were Americans who were black who did become successful, especially in the North, as they created their own businesses and hired employees. Even in places like Ohio, they were buying their own freedom. These lessons are out there, and I think it is important for us to talk about both the blemishes as well as the potential for the future for our American system.
Blair: As we wrap-up here, I want to flip that question on its head. For parents who see in the school system that that’s happening, what are some of the solutions to either get this kind of content out of schools or to mitigate it so that it’s not nearly as dangerous as it seems to be right now?
Butcher: Well, I think the most important thing is that we point out the discriminatory applications that come from critical race theory. What does critical race theory lead to? Well, we’re seeing these mandatory affinity groups where students are separated according to skin color for different school activities.
There was a headline in recent months about, out in Denver, there was a public school that made their playground only available to black families for a period of time. These kinds of policies are, in fact, racially discriminatory. They violate the Civil Rights Act.
When you press schools about these activities and behaviors, we start to see that they’ll fold.
One example recently that I use quite frequently is up in Wellesley, Massachusetts, the Parents Defending Education, which is a group that I mention in my book and also a great partner with us in this movement at The Heritage Foundation, they filed a lawsuit against this school district because they had these mandatory affinity groups, and the district eventually settled. If I had to guess, I would say it’s because they knew that when held up against American law, it wouldn’t stand.
I think the same thing goes when you see school activities or assignments that ask the student to affirm that they are either privileged or an oppressor because of their ethnicity. More and more, as we challenge schools to justify these racially discriminatory behaviors, I think that they will have to back down, knowing that it won’t stand when held up against American law.
Blair: That was Jonathan Butcher, the Will Skillman Fellow in Education at The Heritage Foundation, as well as author of the new book “Splintered: Critical Race Theory and the Progressive War on Truth,” available now wherever books are sold.
Jonathan, very much appreciate your time.
Butcher: Thank you.
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