Gov. Kristi Noem is laying out a decidedly right-wing agenda ahead of South Dakota’s 2022 legislative session, which also kicks off an election year in this state. Last week, she unveiled legislation addressing school prayer (sort of) and transgender athletes, and on Monday, she took aim at Critical Race Theory (CRT).
But, like her prayer legislation — which really doesn’t do much to specifically address prayer at all — her CRT proposal is a vague measure designed more to hit some hot-button culture war topics than to deal with relevant issues.
First, this is a reminder of how CRT is defined, according to EdWeek.org: “The core idea is that race is a social construct, and that racism is not merely the product of individual bias or prejudice, but also something embedded in legal systems and policies.”
Meanwhile, it has been reported that Critical Race Theory is not currently taught anywhere in the state, either in public school or at the college level. One South Dakota university official told the Sioux Falls Argus-Leader last summer that he had to turn to the Internet to find out what Critical Race Theory even was when it became a conservative battle cry.
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Thus, this is much more about political calculus than about classroom education.
In a press release announcing the anti-CRT legislation, the governor stated, “Americans believe ‘all men are created equal,’ and we also believe the American dream is available to all regardless of race, color or national origin. Our schools should teach our children our nation’s true and honest history. They should teach about our successes in establishing a country that is a beacon of freedom to the world and our mistakes along the way.”
That seems sensible, at least on the surface.
But once again, like the prayer measure, it wades into nebulous territory, being purposely vague so that its intent may dwell in the eye of the beholder.
The proposal is more interesting to consider in the light of last year’s effort to redefine social studies standards in the state. After a task force submitted a proposal and mission statement that included a strong Native American component, the final document was altered, removing many of the references to Native American culture. Amid an uproar, Noem eventually put the process on hold, then decided to start over.
That might cast a little more insight into the intent of the proposed CRT legislation.
Also, we must reiterate the very real concern that “banning CRT” will become a rallying cry (or an excuse) to purge some racial issues out of American history altogether.
In Tennessee earlier this fall, a group called Moms for Liberty filed a complaint with that state’s Department of Education (DOE) that a textbook that focuses on civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. violates that state’s CRT ban, Newsweek reported. The group claimed that the book violated the law’s mandate that individuals should not “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or another form of psychological distress solely because of the individual’s race or sex.” (Noem’s proposal just happens to feature very similar language.) Tennessee’s DOE rejected the claim.
Nevertheless, the danger remains that some might use an anti-CRT law to delete such elements from a school curriculum, or that a school district might shy away from any material that could be construed in a CRT context. The proposal also works with a lot of subjectivity: For instance, how does a law define “discomfort” or “distress” in this context?
So, the proposal addresses a problem that technically does not exist in this state, but it could be used to impact the teaching of other matters, such as slavery or Native American land and cultural issues.