Georgia Censors Critical Race Theory Like an Authoritarian Regime

The famous 1915 film 'The Birth of a Nation' is one example of the South’s revisionist history.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, pages were ripped out of my social studies textbook in an attempt to stop teachers at Dhahran Academy from teaching about Anne Frank. Any mention of the Holocaust, Israel or other Jewish leaders was removed or permanently obscured with a black marker. 

The Saudis only wanted the narrative that Israel was stolen from Palestinians by the Jewish people taught in schools. Stories about the Holocaust that created sympathy for the Jewish people threatened their narrative.  

I never imagined that I would be living in Georgia with my oldest heading off to kindergarten, afraid that her history textbooks would be censored.  

Critical race theory is a set of intellectual and legal concepts that are loosely organized together. Stephen Sawchuck wrote in What is Critical Race Theory and Why is it Under Attack?: “The core idea is that racism is a social construct, and that it is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.” 

Because critical race theory is a loosely organized legal theory, its definition is nebulous, which has allowed for some in our country to co-opt the term and turn it into a boogeyman. Sawchuck writes, “Thus much of the current debate appears to spring not from the academic texts, but from fear among critics that students—especially white students—will be exposed to supposedly damaging or self-demoralizing ideas.” It is that fear that has led school boards to create rules about what history is acceptable and how it can be taught. But this fear of critical race theory is forcing school boards and state governments to try and control education and the historical narrative, which is one of the first steps of authoritarian government. 

Stalin required that students only be taught a historical narrative that his government created. David Remnick wrote in Lenin’s Tomb, “Stalin was not the first leader to enforce a myth of history, only the most successful.” By controlling the narrative, Stalin glorified party leaders, whitewashed the state’s atrocities, and those who did not believe this myth were branded an enemy of the state. 

Stalin’s government was authoritarian, not fascist. However, restricting education is a sign of the beginnings of fascism. Italian writer Primo Levi wrote, “There are many ways of reaching [fascism], not just through the terror of police intimidation, but by denying and distorting information, by undermining systems of justice, by paralyzing the education system, and by spreading in a myriad subtle ways nostalgia for a world where order reigned, and where the security of a privileged few depends on the forced labor and the forced silence of the many.”  

Many modern nations continue to engage in rewriting history tacitly via exceptionalism. Russia celebrates the end of World War II, reminding the rest of the world of its pivotal role in bringing the war to an end. The United States’ version of exceptionalism has been used by both Republicans and Democrats, usually to justify actions on the geopolitical world stage. Imagery such as the “shining city on a hill” are used to describe America’s responsibility, because of our “exceptional values and democracy.” In an article entitled “American Exceptionalism Is a Dangerous Myth,” Eric Levitz writes, “American exceptionalism is rooted in the improbable notion that the United States is uniquely unbeholden to the logic of power.” 

The South revised its history after the Civil War to create one that painted the Confederates as sympathetic protectors of the southern way of life, providing an opportunity for the Klu Klux Klan to return to power. The movie The Birth of the Nation propelled the Klu Klux Klan’s return. The Birth of a Nation created a new narrative about the Civil War, romanticizing the South and the KKK. Even after the director D.W. Griffith apologized for that portrayal and tried to repair it in future films, the foundation of white sympathy for the Klu Klux Klan remained for decades. The KKK’s romanticization of history led to fascism because it glorified southern nationalism and purification of the South while contending that the KKK was doing the will of the people. This manipulation of history led many contemporaries of the second iteration of the KKK to refer to the organization as a fascist group, according to writer Sarah Churchwell

The Georgia State Board of Education restricts how students are educated in history, current events and civics. The board argues that schools and teachers should not teach that, “with respect to their relationship to American values, slavery and racism are 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.” This phrase ignores the historical fact that the constitution originally only granted liberty and equality to white men. 

The resolutions also restrict how teachers discuss current events and forbid civic engagement. These resolutions could stop teachers from grappling with the legacy, and system, of racism, leaving our history in very narrow and prescribed 1950s-1960s models that gloss over the legal and institutionalized forms of racist inequality and that remain present in the adjudication of laws. These resolutions will not in and of themselves lead to fascism, but they do point to a hyper-nationalistic culture that could quickly descend into fascism. 

This threat of fascism demands that we teach history unapologetically. In an interview with NPR’s “Weekend Edition,” Julian Hayter said that “racial reconciliation is not a zero-sum game… We can tell a more complete story of American history without making people feel guilty or being made to feel guilty.” It is the unleashing of history that frees us from the threat of fascism.