The Other Columbus: Canceling critical race theory won’t make America great

A new bill introduced by Rep. Don Jones is as much about power as anything else

Scott Woods
North Carolina residents protest against the teaching of critical race theory in schools.

State Rep. Don Jones (R-Freeport) introduced a 26-page bill to the Ohio General Assembly that, essentially, hates education. 

It’s an odd bill for a former high school teacher to bring to the floor, and yet here it is: HB 322. The bill starts out simple enough, seeking to standardize teacher performance, to define things like “digital learning” and so on. But once you get to page nine, it becomes clear what this bill is really about. HB 322 isn’t legislation designed just to keep teachers in check. It’s about keeping history in check.

The meat of what HB 322 tackles is how history, civics and social studies should be taught. Jones keeps calling it critical race theory, and I wish he wouldn’t because it’s clear that he doesn’t know what CRT is, and his admonishments (sorry, bill) offer no useful definitions and suggest no knowledge of what critical race theory actually entails. Jones simply doesn’t like what he thinks it implies: that decent white citizens will be dragged over the coals of this country’s racially problematic past until they, too, hate America.

What kinds of things does Jones believe shouldn’t be taught, implicitly or explicitly? Things like:

  • One race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex
  • An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously
  • An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual's race
  • An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex
  • The advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States

Some of this stuff looks like a no-brainer on the surface. I agree that no one should be teaching that any race or sex is inherently superior to another. But many of these proposals are censorship in disguise:

  • “An individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of the individual's race” means “stop picking on white people.”
  • “An individual, by virtue of the individual's race or sex, bears responsibility for actions committed in the past by other members of the same race or sex” means “stop blaming me for what my ancestors may have done, and also stop asking for reparations.”

The real doozies are the ones that call out slavery by name:

  • “The advent of slavery in the territory that is now the United States constituted the true founding of the United States” means “do not read, purchase or in any way come in contact with the Nikole Hannah-Jones’ 1619 Project.”

And my personal favorite:

  • “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 one is particularly delicious because it wants to do so many things, all of them bad. The short read here is that this section seeks to change the entire context of slavery. It wants to make the people who owned slaves or supported slavery seem not so bad or misguided or merely flawed. More, it wants to pretend as if slavery wasn’t the law of the land. Perhaps worst of all, it wants to paint America as having always been what it says it is, when in fact it has never lived up to that ideal. Contrary to what this bill implies, it’s OK to say that out loud. Only feelings get hurt by doing so. (Well, feelings and systemic power structures, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.)

For a party that says it wants to combat cancel culture, they sure want to do a lot of canceling. 

If all of that wasn’t enough, the bill also wants to defund any effort to acquire materials or invest in teacher development, while also seeking to de-incentivize volunteer work and projects or activities by students advocating public policy, essentially strangling the activist baby while still in the crib. This bill seeks to legislate “Make America Great Again” in the form of a lesson plan. 

But the greatest fabrication of this bill is that it pretends schools teach critical race theory in the first place. CRT is an academic method in which the tenets of society — politics, history, science, laws, art, etc. — are analyzed for context and contributions that don’t just funnel every answer into a teacher key for white empire. Rep. Jones keeps saying it is education through the lens of race, which is a severe reduction of CRT. But never mind that: When was the last time you were in a high school classroom and this happened with concerted effort across grade levels and it wasn’t February? The monster that Jones and his ilk have conjured up when it comes to CRT doesn’t exist. All they’ll end up doing is getting rid of Black History Month and confining their attempts at diversity to the school cafeteria menu on Tuesdays. If CRT had actually been used in any school I grew up in, you’d have gotten every essay I’ve written about race and justice 30 years ago. What Jones wants to right-correct isn’t there. 

Also, despite the recent uproar, CRT isn’t a new concept. Jones, along with many other Republicans, doesn’t want critical race theory taught to students, but the subject was already old when I was in school, and I’ve got two years on the Representative. If you’re just now having a problem with the way history makes white people look, I demand to see your teaching certificate. I’d also consider employing a battery of literacy tests like the ones white politicians weaponized against Black voters as recently as 1964, with such relevant challenges as  “Who is the Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture?” or “Spell backwards, forwards.” 

Of course, if Bill 322 goes into effect, it would be illegal for me to mention that bit of history in a classroom, not because it is untrue, but because it makes white people look bad. 

Actually, I should stop reducing the bill’s bottom line to dismissing concepts that “make white people look bad” because that’s not really what this bill is about. This is all about power. 

Powerful people don’t mind looking bad. What they mind is having less control over things, especially people. Education that suggests America wasn’t founded solely (or at all) on the principles and values people thought also implies that the country doesn’t actually run on those things now. That’s the kind of question CRT is designed to bring to the table and interrogate, not because it wants to make white people feel bad, but because it wants to rectify the systemic imbalances baked into the way America operates. The only people who should be against CRT are people who benefit from those imbalanced systems.

Which probably tells you everything you need to know about the critics of critical race theory.