The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are trying to turn red America into a dystopia

At Highlands Ranch High School in Colorado, students walk out in protest of a vote by a conservative-majority school board to fire the district's superintendent on Feb. 7. (Kevin Mohatt/Reuters)

Some Republican lawmakers in Georgia have proposed legislation that would prevent schools from requiring any childhood vaccination requirements. Apparently fanning the coronavirus pandemic is not enough; they appear willing to spur a comeback of childhood diseases once nearly obliterated in advanced societies, such as polio or measles.

Meanwhile, the MAGA crowd in Florida has proposed legislation that seeks to prevent teaching topics that might make White students uncomfortable. Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute, explains:

The most pernicious part of the bill is its bizarre definition of “individual freedom,” consisting of eight principles plainly written to protect white people. The final one is the most sweeping: “An individual should not be made to feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race.” The bill then proceeds to define “discrimination” under Florida state law as a violation of “individual freedom.”
This provision effectively gives any single white person veto power over the content of history curriculum in schools or trainings in the workplace. White discomfort governs historical truth.

Keep in mind that Florida Republicans have no problem making gay children uncomfortable. They have also introduced legislation that would hobble education about gender identity and sexual orientation. The Tampa Bay Times reports, “Critics, who call the measures Florida’s ‘don’t say gay’ bills, argue the measures are an attempt to weaponize the idea of parental rights to marginalize LGBTQ people.”

The legislation would encourage parents to sue if they find school curriculum, even at the high school level, is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate. The Tampa Bay Times reports, “Nadine Smith, executive director of the LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida, which opposes the bills, said the measures attempt to solve a nonexistent problem. There is no developmentally inappropriate curriculum about sexual orientation or gender identity being taught to young kids, she contended.”

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And in Texas, if some Republicans get their way, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Ku Klux Klan could be excised from school curriculum. Under the banner of prohibiting critical race theory, which is not taught in schools, right-wingers convinced they are victims of discrimination and tyrannized by demands for tolerance in a diverse society no longer see private or home schooling as a way to shield children from unwanted influence. Now, they want to enlist public schools to do the indoctrination for them.

Throughout the deep red South, book banning has become all the rage. The New York Times reports: “Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers around the country are challenging books at a pace not seen in decades. The American Library Association said in a preliminary report that it received an ‘unprecedented’ 330 reports of book challenges, each of which can include multiple books, last fall.” Among the states pursuing such bans are Republican strongholds such as Tennessee, Wyoming and Oklahoma.

On Feb. 3, pastor Greg Locke of the Global Vision Bible Church in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., said books such as “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” should be burned. (Video: The Washington Post)

A common theme among these measures: protecting Whites — not Blacks, Hispanics or Native Americans, the groups that have actually suffered from racism and repression — from feeling “bad” about historical facts. That motive is racist — a sort of trigger warning intended to shield White people from unpleasant truths about discrimination against minority groups. Minorities upset about the miseducation of youth simply have to suck it up.

The bills also encourage frivolous litigation that would make trial lawyers blush. Incentives to harass teachers and tie up schools in endless litigation suggests that Republicans would rather spend time and money fighting these legal battles than on education. It’s a peculiar position for a party that used to look askance at tort litigation.

Much of the hullabaloo takes place in states where schools are massively underperforming in basic subjects such as math and reading. In fact, many of these states — Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, Mississippi, West Virginia — rank at the bottom of educational performance or can claim some of the least-educated populations in the country. One would think adults concerned with catching students up to compete with peers in high-performing blue states (let alone China) would have different priorities.

Legislation that aims clearly at attacking science, inclusion and historical truth are often thought in terms of its moral and political implications. But one must also ask: Is this how you’d want to run a state to attract the best and the brightest?

The answer is probably not. Politicians behind these efforts are not working to advance the economic, intellectual and social well-being of their residents. Rather, by their own admission, they are seeking to “battle the left.” That generally amounts to rejecting expert scientific opinion, bastardizing history, indulging White grievance and unleashing a torrent of litigation.

It’s easy to see how such measures could dissuade people from relocating to these states, diversifying their economies, building high-tech businesses and expanding higher education — the attributes that characterize more affluent and diverse states. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the point.

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