Critical race theory in Kansas: Anti-American indoctrination? Or political scare tactic?

Mainstream Coalition hosts forum on campaign season’s hot-button issue

By: - July 28, 2021 9:13 am

Clockwise from top left: Liz Meitl moderates a discussion on critical race theory for the Mainstream Coalition with Chase Billingham, associate professor of sociology at Wichita State University, Danedri Herbert, of the Kansas Policy Institute, and Mark McCormick, spokesman for the ACLU of Kansas and member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission. (Screen capture from Mainstream Coalition debate)

TOPEKA — Conservative writer Danedri Herbert would welcome a state law banning critical race theory from K-12 public school curriculum because that academic movement represents a self-indulgent contemplation of racism and reinforces soft bigotry of low expectations for minorities.

Herbert, who is affiliated with the Kansas Policy Institute in Wichita, said the 2022 Legislature would debate a bill banning instruction in critical race theory statewide.

It would be a direct assault on what has been described by advocates as a scholarly framework for examining institutional racism manifesting itself in law, custom and practice, and resulting in limitations in education, housing and employment. It’s also been defined by critics, including Kansas politicians, as the work of left-wingers dabbling in anti-American indoctrination.

“I don’t want my children taught in schools using a theory … that they are victims if they are minorities and oppressors if they’re not minorities,” she said. “I’m not going to deny that racism exists, but I am going to say I’m not sure naval gazing all the time is particularly helpful.”

ACLU of Kansas communications director Mark McCormick, appearing on the same Mainstream Coalition panel discussion on Tuesday night, said critical race theory was being maligned for political gain because Republican candidates were seeking to drive their base to the polls. Denouncing critical race theory makes it more difficult for Kansans to acknowledge and talk about subtle forms of racism as well as consider explicit and intentional prejudices of the past, he said.

“It’s a scare tactic to try to diminish the need to tell the full history of this country,” McCormick said. “We need this discussion in order to exorcise some demons.”


Beating the drum

Herbert and McCormick joined sociologist Chase Billingham for an online discussion about the meaning and implications of critical race theory that was denounced by former President Donald Trump as “divisive” and, in fact, “racist.” He issued an executive order directing U.S. agencies to cancel funding of programs mentioning white privilege or critical race theory, but that was rescinded by President Joe Biden in January.

Opposition to critical race theory has percolated as the American Legislative Exchange Council, Heritage Foundation, state legislators and candidates for state and local office seized the opportunity to attack K-12 education and the 1619 Project on race published by The New York Times.

Here’s a recent sample: “Critical race theory and the 1619 Project are left-wing political activism masquerading as education, so it’s no wonder the Biden administration is backing the national teachers’ unions decision to embrace them,” said Derek Schmidt, the attorney general of Kansas and a GOP candidate for governor. “As governor, I’ll fight to keep anti-American indoctrination out of Kansas schools.”

In Kansas, the state constitution grants responsibility for formulating K-12 curriculum to the Kansas Board of Education and authorizes local school boards to deal with instruction. A bill adopted by the Kansas Legislature to ban discussion in schools of the 1619 Project or silence teaching of racial history could be unconstitutional.

Billingham, a Wichita State University professor of sociology, said there was confusion about the definition of critical race theory. It shouldn’t be considered proven science replicated in a laboratory, he said, but a general framework of concepts and propositions to help people study embedded, complex issues of race.

“Race is, has been, continues to be a defining feature in American life,” he said. “We have not become a post-racial society as some allege and we probably never will.”

He said public scrutiny of schools was essential, but voters ought to trust educators were making a good-faith effort to teach all children. He said education professionals rather than statehouse politicians should handle curriculum decisions. It would be a mistake for lawmakers to forbid students from considering controversial ideas on race, he said.

“Not only does that have a chilling effect on teachers, but I also think this has a tendency to create bureaucratic headaches for schools as teachers try to figure out how to teach about restricted ideas,” Billingham said.


‘Fill me with anger’

McCormick said he was convinced opposition to racism would harden if whites caught a strong taste of what it meant to be Black in the United States. He said Blacks suffered greatly in this country and the sensibility of Americans had to be questioned after former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was condemned for taking a knee and the throng that assaulted law enforcement officers in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 were hailed as patriots.

“If we don’t deal with this, this cancer is going to eat us from the inside out,” McCormick said. “I feel like any right-minded American ought to be offended by that notion as well. It is a part of who we are supposed to be if we are Christian people.”

Herbert said one of her frustrations with critical race theory was that it left the impression white people had to change laws or reform organizations so Black people could reach their full potential. As she said, “I’m going to be honest. I don’t need your help.” To put a finer point on it, she said there was a sense Blacks were incapable of simple errands such as finding an office of the Division of Motor Vehicles to obtain a photo identification.

She said a more balanced approach to teaching young people about racism would be to delve into subjects of slavery and inequality, but also celebrate historical contributions of Blacks and how far the country had come in creating equitable opportunity for people.

“I don’t have any anger about racism in our country,” she said. “I don’t like it. It doesn’t fill me with anger.”

Billingham said he didn’t anticipate critical race theory would persist as a salient political tool past the 2022 election cycle. Likewise, Herbert speculated the value of critical race theory as a campaign tactic would last another year or so.

McCormick said attack campaign ads remained a mainstay of political life, and so could finger pointing about critical race theory, because it was difficult to walk away from a proven vehicle for success by local school board, legislative and statewide candidates.

“This is Robert Preston, the Music Man, coming to River City trying to get people to buy uniforms and instruments,” he said, referring to the 1962 film.

Michael Poppa, executive director of the Mainstream Coalition, said the forum was put together to break through caustic narratives surrounding critical race theory.

“It was elevated by extremists wielding it like a weapon, using it as a wedge issue to gain political power,” he said.

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Tim Carpenter
Tim Carpenter

Tim Carpenter has reported on Kansas for 35 years. He covered the Capitol for 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal and previously worked for the Lawrence Journal-World and United Press International.