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An Almost Dangerous Occupation? Teaching History in Florida's Public Schools and State Universities: Part III

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Part II of this four-part column discussed two Florida bills from 2005 and 2006, one on the teaching of history in public schools, the other pertaining to ideological diversity in the state's universities.

Fast-forward to 2021, a far more polarized political context in which reasonable, honest and civil debates among individuals on different sides of so many issues have become -- it pains me to say this -- virtually impossible. The sights and sounds captured in videos taken inside airplane cabins, grocery stores and school-board meeting halls are testimony to our collective descent into forms of barbarism that are simultaneously tribal and individualistic.

In this politicized environment, Florida's Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state's Republican legislators have revisited some of the education issues their predecessors debated some 15 years earlier. In June, following DeSantis' instructions, the state's Department of Education issued a mandate banning the teaching of "critical race theory" and any other "theories that distort historical events." Later in the month, the state legislature passed and the governor signed the "Intellectual Freedom and Viewpoint Diversity" act.

And just this month, Republican state legislator Randy Fine filed HB 57 (an act relating to racial and sexual discrimination), which effectively prohibits all state, county and municipal agencies, including "public K-20 educational institutions," from offering mandatory trainings, workshops and programs that employ "divisive concepts" and "race or sex scapegoating or race or sex stereotyping." Days later, his colleague Joe Gruters filed the Senate version of that bill.

Florida, it seems, is fertile ground for such legislative initiatives. This summer, Sen. Marco Rubio introduced two complementary bills that parallel and echo state legislation. First, the ''Protecting Students from Racial Hostility Act,'' followed by the "Protect Equality and Civics Education Act.'' All of these state and federal legislative initiatives use language identical to that of September 2020's presidential executive order, "Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping," issued by transplanted Floridian former President Donald Trump.

WHAT IS CRITICAL RACE THEORY?

Until as recently as the spring of 2021, few people had even heard the term "critical race theory," a concept that is misunderstood and/or misrepresented by some of its proponents and most of its detractors.

The concept emerged in the 1980s from within the scholarly field of legal analysis. Promulgated by Black and Latino Ivy League scholars like Derrick Bell, Kimberle Crenshaw (who coined the term) and Richard Delgado, critical race theory rests on the belief that American society is fundamentally racist and, thus, discrimination against nonwhites permeates not only the law and the criminal justice system, but also most institutions and cultural forms. As Delgado and co-author Jean Stefancic explain in their book "Critical Race Theory," "our social world, with its rules, practices, and assignments of prestige and power, is not fixed; rather, we construct it with words, stories and silence." Those words, the reasoning continues, have been historically enunciated by whites who have muffled other voices to virtual silence.

As a decades-long student of slavery and its aftermath in the Americas, some of the central arguments of critical race theory seem reasonable to me. Racism, which is an attitude, exists, of course -- whether it is as omnipresent as some claim, is up for discussion; forms of discrimination, meanwhile, which are concrete manifestations of racism, are undeniable realities as well.

 

But other tenets ascribed to critical race theory strike me as dogmatic, contradictory and even intellectually dishonest. If we use the analogy of critical race theory as a religion, it has spun numerous cults with extreme interpretations (heresies) preached by often-uninformed, self-proclaimed diversity and inclusion coaches and trainers -- more on them later.

Take for example the rejection of meritocracy as "a vehicle for self-interest, power, and privilege" (UCLA School of Public Affairs, Critical Race Studies Program) imposed by holders of white privilege to exclude and marginalize Black people and other minorities. First, let's not forget that the practice of meritocracy originated in 19th-century Great Britain precisely to provide access to education and employment for those at the margins of elite white society. It is also true that application of meritocratic principles has not eliminated discrimination against nonwhites.

As someone who has tirelessly advocated for diversity and fair inclusion in education and the workplace, I have espoused merit principles but have also argued for broad and creative definitions of merit. Merit can be accomplished, and thus educational institutions and employers have the responsibility to provide opportunities for individuals to build their own merit.

To be continued.

Luis Martinez-Fernandez is a Writing Fellow at Heterodox Academy.

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Luis Martinez-Fernandez is author of "Revolutionary Cuba: A History." Readers can reach him at LMF_Column@yahoo.com. To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www. creators.com.

Copyright 2021 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

 

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