GOP Targets ‘Cancel Culture’ in School Lessons, Political Speech

By: - February 26, 2021 12:00 am

A “statue” of Coretta Scott King talks to students in Decatur, Alabama, as pupils role-play historical figures in the civil rights movement. Some Republicans want to limit what students can be taught about American history and the enslavement of Black people. Jeronimo Nisa/The Decatur Daily via The Associated Press

Thousands of Republicans and right-wing activists are gathering this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, under the banner “America Uncanceled”—a jab at what many attendees and allies feel is an effort by Democrats, progressives and tech companies to silence conservative voices in American society.

“Cancel culture” has run amok, conservatives say. This belief is so widespread that it has inspired at least a dozen pieces of state legislation that aim to protect political speech, enshrine monuments and ban educational materials that supporters believe denigrate the United States and its history.

Social media discussions around “cancel culture” in recent years often have centered on people losing their positions or platforms because of controversial, racist or homophobic comments. In other cases, the term has been applied to attempts by people of color, some historians and progressives to highlight the racist beliefs and actions of historical figures and remove monuments and holidays that honor them.

While this pressure has been directed toward people of various backgrounds, many Republicans have taken this phenomenon personally, seeing it as the latest iteration of political correctness, the next battle in the culture war.

“It’s the idea of revisionist history combined with ‘cancel culture’ that we have to get a handle on,” said Oklahoma state Sen. David Bullard, a Republican. He introduced two bills this session that would add protections for public school and college students’ political speech and ban “anti-American” teachings in the classroom, which he described as any endorsement of socialism, Marxism or communism.

“We’re not sending our kids to schools to be indoctrinated,” he told Stateline. “We’re sending them to school to be educated.”

Bullard worries students may be pressured by educators to change their politics and lose their religious faith when they go to school.

Republicans have introduced bills in California and Iowa that would add political ideology to the list of protected categories under state anti-discrimination laws. Those laws traditionally cover gender, race, religion and sometimes sexual orientation. Other bills in Arkansas, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri and South Dakota would ban schools from using educational materials, such as The New York Times’ “1619 Project,” that emphasize the role of slavery and racial discrimination in the nation’s history.

Several other state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would protect Confederate monuments and require the playing of the national anthem before sporting events.

While authors of these bills say their measures would protect speech and the integrity of American history, opponents fear the measures would only stifle free speech, distort facts about the enslavement of Black people and dangerously encroach on local control of public-school curricula.

Some state Democratic lawmakers go even further, asserting that the measures are an attempt by White Christians to retain their dominant position in society and their control over the nation’s narrative in a country undergoing a rapid demographic shift. The U.S. is likely to become minority White in the next three decades, according to census estimates. Non-Hispanic White people currently make up 60% of the population, but that number will continue to drop, according to demographers.

“I feel as though my peers want to preserve their spot in the hierarchy,” said Iowa state Rep. Ras Smith, a Democrat and Black man who has spoken forcefully against these measures in the Hawkeye State. “It’s shortsighted. It’s a disservice. It’s a political power grab by Republicans.”

‘Canceling’ American History

The nonprofit Pulitzer Center has partnered with The New York Times several times over the past six years, bringing information on issues such as climate change and the Arab Spring into classrooms around the country by developing lesson plans and reading guides.

The “1619 Project,” led by reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer for her contribution to the project, fits the mold of the kind of reporting the Pulitzer Center sought to bring into willing classrooms. Timed to the 400th anniversary of slavery in the United States, the series of essays places slavery and racial discrimination at the center of the American narrative, and traces many of today’s social problems to the enslavement of Black people.

While it shows the often-painful history of the Black experience, it is also an uplifting narrative of how Black people have been some of the greatest defenders of foundational American principles of freedom and democracy, said Mark Schulte, the Pulitzer Center’s education director. How can students understand the unrest of 2020, he asked, without understanding the country’s difficult history?

“The ‘1619 Project’ was both very timely and massively overdue,” he said. Educators in all 50 states have taught the project, he said, using it to supplement broader history lesson plans—a historical source to debate and dissect. The project this month launched a national education network that will award grants to educators looking to teach the project.

This nontraditional vision of American history has rankled many conservatives, who believe the project is too critical of the country’s founding and its historical leaders. They also cite criticisms by some historians about the accuracy of assertions in some of the material. (Last year, the Times edited the material to clarify that protecting slavery was a primary motivation for only some, not all, of the rebellious colonists.) National Republican leaders lambasted the work. U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas introduced legislation last year that would financially punish schools that taught the project. The bill never made it to committee.

Now, Republican lawmakers in five states have introduced measures that would ban the material.

“The legislature absolutely has an interest in keeping this racist, divisive and factually and historically inaccurate Leftist political propaganda masquerading as history out of taxpayer-funded history classes,” wrote Iowa state GOP Rep. Skyler Wheeler in an emailed statement. His bill has passed out of an Education subcommittee.

The curriculum is “designed to manipulate our children into hating our country,” wrote Missouri state Rep. Brian Seitz, who introduced similar legislation, in an emailed statement.

“It is vital that this revisionist history be prohibited from inclusion in the curriculum of Missouri schools,” Seitz wrote. Both he and Wheeler declined interview requests.

Seitz wrote he doesn’t believe his bill represents censorship but rather is an attempt to make sure “our history teachers are present in the classroom to teach the things that actually happened in our country, not their opinion of what happened.”

While bills in Arkansas, Mississippi and South Dakota either failed or were withdrawn, legislation in Iowa and Missouri is still moving forward. Hannah-Jones did not respond to a request for comment.

State lawmakers attempting to ban curricula and sources is a “troubling trend,” said Stefanie Wager, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, a professional association that advocates for social studies education. She previously guided the social studies curriculum at the Iowa Department of Education for eight years.

“It’s kind of like banning books,” she said. “When you’re trying to ban an idea, it never works out well.”

An Arizona law that banned Mexican-American studies was deemed unconstitutional by a U.S. District Court judge in 2017, who found it racially and politically motivated.

Acknowledging the role of slavery in the roots of the country can still be patriotic, Wager said. The history of the United States is complicated, filled with great moments and immense pain. Teaching about slavery does not make students hate America, she said; it increases their critical thinking skills.

Some conservatives, however, have said the “1619 Project” fits with what they see as a broader trend of trying to erase American heroes, pointing to cities such as San Francisco, where the city school board has announced its intention to remove the names of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Paul Revere from schools. Local officials say they are trying to emphasize and celebrate new people and themes in American history.

In dozens of other cities, officials and protesters have torn down statues of Christopher Columbus, leaders of the Confederacy and “Star-Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key.

One Republican lawmaker in Alabama introduced legislation this session that would fine universities or cities ,000 for every day a monument was removed. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, filed legislation that would ensure the national anthem is played before games after Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban announced his basketball team would stop the tradition. The NBA has since required all teams to play the national anthem before games.

Canceled or Called Out?

Malaika Jabali doesn’t know when the idea of “canceling” someone transformed from a tongue-in-cheek phrase long used by Black people to a cultural crisis among conservatives, who, she said, often direct their concern at people of color.

The public policy attorney and Guardian columnist has previously written about “cancel culture.” She argued in July that Cotton’s legislation to ban the “1619 Project” and other similar reactions to those who challenge traditional thinking around U.S. history are the real perpetrators of “cancel culture.”

While people are sometimes quick to criticize others on the internet, she said, this is not a phenomenon that is exclusively directed at conservatives. People of color and progressives, she said, have been “canceled” throughout U.S. history. As an example, she cited Republican U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s campaign against alleged communists in the U.S. government, Hollywood and other institutions during the 1950s. Most of the accused were not members of the Communist Party, but they were blacklisted or lost their jobs anyway.

“Just because you received consequences through your job, your publishing company, doesn’t mean there’s this mob canceling rights,” she said. “Now, you actually have an exchange of ideas, instead of being a one-way street.”

But the problem, at least to some Republicans, has become so bad that it requires new laws.

In California, Republican state Sen. Melissa Melendez introduced two bills that would add political ideology protections to employment, housing and education codes. Freedom of speech, she said, is at risk.

“Cancel culture and the efforts to silence differing opinions and voices should be a growing concern for all of us,” said Melendez in a news release earlier this month. Melendez declined an interview request. “A climate of intolerance has been established and has stifled healthy and normal debate.”

A Democratic lawmaker in the Golden State rebuffed Melendez’s bill, arguing people who say racist, sexist or violent comments should not be allowed special workplace protections.

Similar legislation in Iowa would add political ideology to the state’s anti-discrimination laws.

The bill’s author, Republican state Rep. Steven Holt, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. However, he told the Des Moines Register that his bill is needed because of “cancel culture” perpetrated by social media companies and others who “seem determined to silence and destroy those who do not agree with their philosophy.” It has passed out of a Judiciary subcommittee.

Protecting free speech is at the core of Mark Stringer’s work as the executive director of the ACLU of Iowa. But he finds this bill unnecessary, disturbing and potentially harmful to the free speech of minority groups. Both this bill and the one that would ban the “1619 Project” aim to “whitewash Iowa,” he said, and shut down voices that historically haven’t been heard.

“It’s egregious,” he told Stateline. “I can understand why people don’t want their ideas to be challenged, whether it’s about slavery or their political ideology not being held by all people. But it’s not discrimination.”

People should call out violations of free speech when they see it, said Iowa state Rep. Christina Bohannan, a Democrat. But this is not an issue isolated to one political party. Her Republican colleagues, she said, are only interested in a one-sided approach to free speech.

“They are very quick to see violations to their own speech rights and very slow when they’re doing it to others,” she said. “They’re not seeing the full picture.”

But there are broader consequences to these bills, she said. These and other “mean-spirited” bills in Iowa—like a proposal to ban transgender people from using bathrooms of their gender identity—threaten to ostracize the state’s desperately needed younger residents.

“There is no way that our young people are going to want to be here or move here from other places when we are enacting such regressive policies on issues like race and gender identity,” said Bohannan, who is a law professor at the University of Iowa. “Young people just do not want any part of that.”

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Matt Vasilogambros
Matt Vasilogambros

Matt Vasilogambros covers voting rights, gun laws and Western climate policy for Stateline. He lives in San Diego, California.