Excerpted From: Aziz Rana, Anti-“CRT,” A Century Old Tradition, 58 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. 551 (Summer, 2023) (113 Footnotes ) (Full Document)


AzizRanaThe terms of right-wing political reaction today against racial or other social and cultural reforms can be deeply puzzling. This is because a key rhetorical feature of such a reaction is that it very aggressively embraces the idea of the United States as exceptional precisely because of its inclusive and egalitarian values. Certainly, some “white nationalists” in the age of Donald Trump have explicit racially supremacist views. But, more commonly, aligned politicians and commentators will attack “multiculturalism” and anti-racist teaching in schools, or defend harsh crackdowns on immigrant rights by claiming to stand for the universalistic principles of “1776.”

Take the language of Texas's 2021 anti-“critical race theory” (CRT) bill, which bans teachers from presenting “slavery and racism [as] anything other than deviations from, betrayals of, or failures to live up to, the authentic founding principles of the United States, which include liberty and equality.” The bill is part of a sustained attack on Black movement politics around racial justice, framing public engagement with the history and ongoing practice of racism--rather than the resurgence of white supremacy itself--as the actual threat to universal values. This pushback mobilizes ideas of American inclusion precisely as a way of forestalling a sustained examination of what genuine equality may entail.

All of this seems to be a bundle of contradictions. For starters, this is because such language mirrors the dominant discourse of twentieth-century civil rights efforts. Those efforts often embraced a brand of civic nationalism that I will refer to as “creedal” after the Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal. In 1944, Myrdal famously asserted that the United States had been committed, from the time of its founding, to the principle emblazoned in the Declaration of Independence: that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” He termed this historical narrative the “American Creed,” and he argued that the unfolding national experience concretely manifested the narrative, concluding that “the main trend in [American] history is the gradual realization of the American Creed” and thus the fulfillment of the nation's founding promise.

Myrdal's phrase captured a way of thinking about the country--simultaneously an historical interpretation and a political ideology. Indeed, it provided the normative underpinning of key civil rights movement victories, like the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965), and thus the mainstream reform language for overcoming segregation and legalized discrimination.

Those on the center-left accept that the United States has competing traditions of civic and ethnic nationalisms--notions of collective identity grounded in liberal pluralism as well as those grounded in “illiberal” and inherited racial, cultural, and religious ties. But the conventional presentation of racial reaction is in terms of the segregationist South, emphasizing an explicitly white supremacist rejection of creedal values or a civic approach. That conventional presentation also tends to assume that the civic and the ethnic registers are distinct and isolated from each other. It is far harder to make sense of, through the familiar understandings, why American ethnic nationalism today overwhelmingly speaks in the “civic” and presumptively inclusive language of the creed. How did a creedal nationalism become the discursive framework not only for civil rights promotion, but also for racially restrictive accounts of national identity and membership? Is it merely a cynical smokescreen?

I argue that turning to World War I and its 1920s aftermath--with that era's public culture around the creed and Constitution--points to at least a partial answer. It suggests that recent anti-“CRT” politics is a contemporary manifestation of a longstanding conservative argumentative strain. Indeed, for the better part of a century, arguments about American universalism have also been perhaps the dominant way of articulating white resistance to racial reform, along with a variety of perceived threats to traditionalist values.

The early twentieth century global backdrop, especially World War I, spread broadly an idea of the United States as exceptional because it was where Enlightenment ideas truly took root. For this reason, the country was seen by growing numbers of white Americans as home to institutions that were committed to universal equality. However, the reason the Enlightenment arrived in the United States as opposed to elsewhere, was presented as a product of the culturally exceptional nature of the individuals that settled North America: Anglo-Europeans. The Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution did not, on this view, arise out of nowhere. They were, instead, the end result of 150 years of development that began with the Puritans signing the Mayflower Compact in 1620.

Thus, rather than repudiating ideas of racial hierarchy, this vision of the country's universal promise became an alternative defense of those commitments. In particular, this defense--distinctively attuned to developing global and domestic transformations--spoke in a “civic” rather than “ethnic” nationalist register. Over time, especially in the North and West, the ever-more central way that white voices defended the existing racial order deemphasized classic arguments about biological superiority and essentialism. Rather, such voices presented an American creed as imperiled by radical and foreign reformists of various stripes. Emblematic of this cultural context, the 1920s and 1930s saw the proliferation of numerous education bills--from bans on teaching disloyal texts to state-mandated constitutional instruction to English-only classrooms. These bills serve as the historical lineage for today's more recent public school interventions. They emphasize the deep malleability of creedal narratives as well as the longstanding paradoxical quality of their entanglement with American ethno-nationalism.

The rest of this essay pursues these claims in greater detail. Part I focuses on how creedal ideas, so destabilizing for white society as an antislavery politics, became transformed over time into a driving American language of ethno-nationalism. This discussion centers especially on the role of World War I in popularizing a political fusing of creedalism and racial exclusion. Part II then turns to the first era of anti-“CRT” school bills. It explores the social conflicts that defined the wartime and postwar climate. It emphasizes how those conflicts consolidated an aggressive and belligerent American nationalism and moved conservative supporters of that vision to intercede in debates over an expanding public education system. Next, Part III details a variety of state legislative initiatives in the interwar period regarding schools, teasing out how these efforts helped to mobilize conservative constituencies as well as to integrate potentially competing rightwing orientations into a more coherent political project. The discussion also highlights some striking parallels between state laws then and now. Finally, by way of a conclusion, I suggest that the 1920s developments set in motion a persistent pattern of conservative politics vis-à-vis public schools, with effects down to the present.

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For politics today, reflection on the 1920s origins of contemporary conservative efforts suggest more than mere similarities with past policies. The most noteworthy aspect of the history is the way that comparable pushes have reappeared whenever there has been a major flashpoint around cultural and national identity in the United States. Conservatives have frequently returned to the question of “indoctrination” in schools and the need to reassert a combination of cultural distinctiveness and American universalism. One can see this in the politics around public schools during the 1950s Red Scare, during the fights over Spanish instruction in the 1980s and 1990s, not to mention countless other conflicts about “traditional values.” Indeed, 1980s fights over sex education and today's “Don't Say Gay” bill out of Florida are clear expressions of a common playbook. And this political tendency is so profoundly embedded in right-wing politics in the United States that many proponents today are largely unaware that they are doing the same thing as a hundred years ago; it has become a naturalized part of the conservative policy-making toolkit.

Perhaps one major difference between now and a century ago was that in the early twentieth century many of the hyper-patriotic and nativist activists attacking Progressive reformers still tended to accept the era's assumptions about the need for the public education system. The goal was to use this system to create the right brand of Americanism, and in the process mobilize parents behind a traditionalist and ethno-nationalist version of political identity. Today, however, these efforts take an old business-conservative critique of public schools as socialist propaganda to their logical conclusion. Unlike the early twentieth century, the proliferation and extensive funding of private educational spaces mean that large swathes of a mass conservative base can potentially exit public schooling.

And so, the current attack on public schools entails a rejection of the very idea of “government-run” education outside the market. It now fuses even more intensively pro-market and white ethno-nationalist politics, since the solution to unwelcome pedagogy combines both conservative projects. That solution rejects the role of the public school system as a centerpiece of shared community-building. In effect, it would shift predominantly white families (along, it should be added, with public funds through voucher programs) into private settings fully insulated from alternative perspectives and cultural worldviews. All of this poses a profound threat to the very idea of Americans as sharing a multiracial and inclusive democratic commons.

Ultimately, given the nature of this threat, it is essential for those today opposed to these developments to recognize the long history of such efforts. And as part of this recognition, it is critical to reflect on just why creedal nationalism and racial exclusion have had such a durable bond. One could well contend that a key reason is that even inclusive readings of the civic narrative tend to erase the country's foundations as a settler society, in which the freedom, equality, and access to land for in-group members--largely Anglo-European men of a certain background--depended on the exclusion and subjugation of Black Americans, Indigenous peoples, and women, among others. For all the positives associated with the white national embrace of a vision of the country as free and equal from the founding, a clear problem largely persisted across the twentieth century: Although oppressed groups eventually accessed greater legal protections, these changes overwhelmingly occurred on ideological terms shaped principally by a white majority. Unlike colonized peoples abroad, Black people and Native Americans, among others, were never able to insist on a conscious moment of colonial accounting or, with it, a sustained national engagement with the persistent structural hierarchies bound to the country's settler roots.

This failure to confront such settler foundations meant that, perhaps counterintuitively, even inclusive varieties of creedal nationalism provided cultural space for the development of a modern American ethno-nationalist politics. Indeed, as the twentieth century progressed, part of the appeal of an ideologically flexible creedal discourse, for some, lay in its openness to racially exclusionary commitments. Not unlike Woodrow Wilson, critics of a multiracial political identity could locate the founding's liberal essence and exceptionalism in the distinctive cultural attributes of a Euro-American experience.

Thus, creedal nationalist politics has certainly been a powerful reform register. But it also has been one in which historically excluded communities are often expected to accept an unconditional attachment to the nation and its central domestic symbols. In addition, and perhaps more troubling, it often promotes a narrative of national innocence in which ethno-nationalist assertions about Euro-American exceptionalism persist even as explicit defenses of white supremacy are rendered politically unpalatable.

Appreciating these typically hidden dimensions of creedal nationalism is critical to making sense of why such arguments have been so galvanizing as a mode of political consciousness raising and movement organizing for the right. In particular, such conservative projects operate through the familiar and broadly-embraced terms of American political identity in a way that makes them especially powerful culturally. Anti-“CRT” may be a new buzzword, but it embodies a way of thinking about the American project and a policymaking agenda with deep roots. It is only the latest iteration of a sustained political attempt--with children often as its pawns--to mobilize civic nationalist registers for preservationist ends.

Aziz Rana is the Provost's Distinguished Fellow at Boston College for 2023-2024 and will be the J. Donald Monan, SJ, Chair in Law and Government at Boston College beginning in 2024.