For the past few years, conservatives have been waging an insidious and disingenuous campaign to whitewash racism and oppression from American history and censor material that would examine the more sordid parts of America’s past and present.
Almost as soon as it was first published in 2019, conservatives attacked The 1619 Project – the Pulitzer Prize-winning historical reevaluation that seeks to place slavery and racism at the centre of American history and institutions.
The same GOP politicians and pundits that attacked The 1619 Project then took Critical Race Theory – a graduate-level framework for examining the racial biases embedded in American legal, political and social institutions – and falsely painted it as a subversive ideology infiltrating grade school curriculum. According to Education Week, since January 2021, 36 states have passed or proposed legislation to restrict teaching related to race and racism.
National organisations have coordinated cross-state efforts, distributing lists of books to ban. These laws and regulations have led to books being removed from libraries, educators fired, and even threats of civil and criminal charges for librarians and educators who share the now-forbidden topics.
In isolation, the demonising of The 1619 Project and Critical Race Theory followed a familiar conservative playbook. First, take a term with a specific meaning. Redefine that term through rhetoric and propaganda into something scary and dangerous. Misapply the term to a much broader set of ideas than it actually encompasses. And use the new, demonised concept to discredit political opponents or groups of people that are associated with these ideas.
Through use of this tactic at various points in American history, all socialists, or simply left-leaning politicians and activists, became “violent, godless, communist Marxists”. Feminists became “man-hating radicals”. Black Lives Matter became “violent white hatred”. Inclusivity and “wokeness” became political correctness and thought-policing. And now, Critical Race Theory has been disingenuously transformed into reverse-racism, divisiveness, Black supremacy and – to come full circle – Marxism.
The danger of this practice is not only that it is used to justify censorship of ideas and history, an anti-democratic tactic that is a common feature of authoritarianism. The even more disturbing progression of these policies has been that, eventually, the targeting of ideas gives way to the targeting of groups of people associated with those ideas. The CRT bans have rapidly expanded beyond removing works about racism (most of which did not employ the advanced critical race theory framework anyway), to bans on books about Black subjects or written by Black authors.
Now, as the book-banning movement has expanded to attempts at removing literature with LGBTQ+ themes – ostensibly on the grounds of being sexually explicit – more marginalised people are being endangered by these tactics. And the censorship movement is even dipping its toes into whitewashing the Holocaust, using the “explicit material” rationale to remove the award-winning graphic novel Maus, which uses cartoon images of mice and cats to portray the horrors of the Nazi’s genocidal campaign against Jews.
Campaigns to rewrite history and target racial and sexual minorities for exclusion in order to preserve a culture are not simply authoritarian; such tactics are more specifically and accurately labeled as fascist.
This is not a term to be used lightly. Left-leaning political actors have also been guilty of misusing and demonising labels to apply to their political opponents: “fascist”, “neo-liberal”, and so on. And so it is important to define terms precisely to avoid confusion or intentional misrepresentation. Fascism, the political movement that infected Europe in the interwar years before being defeated but not quite eliminated during World War II, is a notoriously difficult political concept to define. It is less a coherent ideology and more a collection of political strategies and pathologies. Some of its key characteristics include: authoritarianism centred around a charismatic strongman; nationalism, including a glorified depiction of national history and a mission to return to past greatness; appeals to racial, ethnic or national purity, coupled with the targeting of subversive or “impure” groups within society; demagoguery and mass mobilisation combined with political violence; a combination of censorship, propaganda and media manipulation to glorify and justify these ideas and tactics; and ultimately, the move towards totalitarian claims over both public and private life and discourse.
If this sounds like a variety of modern western political movements, including the Make America Great Again faction of the Republican Party, then you’ve been paying attention for the last seven or so years. As white supremacist militia and lone wolves have come out of the woodwork, anti-Semitic attacks are occurring at near-record levels, and actual Nazis are openly rallying in the US, the far right has been silencing discussions about discrimination, racism, and racial violence.
Black community leaders, progressive activists and other voices on the left have warned for some time that the bans against CRT and The 1619 Project were not just conservative or anti-progressive, but specifically anti-democratic, racist and fascist in their motivations and their effect. These warnings were generally dismissed by conservatives and ignored by moderates. When conservative Glenn Youngkin won the governor’s race in Virginia on a platform that railed against a broad caricature of Critical Race Theory and even condemned the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison, attempts by Democrats to paint Youngkin as racist and segregationist fell flat. Since then, many white Democrats seem to have been scared away from openly discussing the literature bans, allowing the scope of such laws to expand to new and disturbing areas.
It has become clear that the censorship of books and classroom material was not the endgame, but merely an opening salvo to greater demands for control of information and discourse. The right-wing anti-democratic movement is now moving beyond mere censorship and entering a phase of surveillance and the very thought-policing that conservatives like to accuse liberals of employing.
Legislators in Iowa and Florida have introduced bills that would install cameras in classrooms for parents to monitor what is being taught to children. A proposed Oklahoma law would allow parents to sue teachers for up to $10,000 for teaching material that is “in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students”, which is generally believed to be a reference to LGBTQ content. A bill in Florida seeks to restrict in-classroom discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classes for younger children. Yet another proposed law in the state would prohibit public education or workplace training that makes people “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race, color, sex, or national origin”, echoing language from similar provisions passed or proposed in Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas.
The Florida version of this latter proposal is not only worrisome because of its subjectivity, but also because it expands the scope of these laws beyond education to private businesses as well. In short, having gotten away with restricting Black authors and content, conservative censors are moving forward to scrub all information to which they object, working towards suppressing the identities tied to this information.
With International Holocaust Remembrance Day having recently passed, I’m reminded of “First They Came,” the poem that encapsulated the regret felt by German priest Martin Niemöller over the church’s failure to stand up to the growing Nazi menace over the years. When they came for The 1619 Project and then for the so-called critical race theorists, few spoke up outside of the Black community. Now, this movement is coming after LGBTQ voices, dedicated educators, and seems bent on generally silencing those seeking to express views that don’t match the ultraconservative, fascist-like ethos of the current Republican Party. They’re coming for the country, and if not checked, they will do their best to silence all the voices that could oppose them.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.