Opinion: When teachers face a bounty for lessons about race

Ron Tripodo, center, yells at the Cherokee County School Board after they passed a resolution to ban teaching critical race theory and then adjourned the meeting on night, May 20, 2021. Tripodo was upset because he felt the language in the resolution was not strong enough. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Ron Tripodo, center, yells at the Cherokee County School Board after they passed a resolution to ban teaching critical race theory and then adjourned the meeting on night, May 20, 2021. Tripodo was upset because he felt the language in the resolution was not strong enough. Ben Gray for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Ben Gray

UGA professor emeritus says escalating threats to educators will erode profession

In a guest column, Peter Smagorinsky, a University of Georgia Distinguished Research Professor of English Education, Emeritus, condemns a $500 bounty offered by a conservative group in New Hampshire to anyone who reports a teacher for breaking a new state law designed to prevent classroom discussions of critical race theory.

New Hampshire passed the Right to Freedom from Discrimination in Public Workplaces and Education in June. The law allows parents to file a complaint if they believe their school presented gender, race, racism, and sexism in a manner that made their children feel they were being blamed or cast as a source of the problem.

Smagorinsky spent 14 years teaching in K-12 schools and more than 30 years in university teacher education programs. You can read earlier AJC Get Schooled guest columns by him here and here.

By Peter Smagorinsky

The AJC Get Schooled blog recently reported that another teacher shortage is on the way. “Schools are struggling with acute shortages of support staff, including janitors, nurses, cafeteria workers, counselors, and bus drivers. ‘We are hearing from teachers that this is the most difficult year they ever had, and they really don’t know if they can continue,’ said the Southern Regional Education Board’s Megan Boren. “

And now, in the latest effort to make teaching as unappealing a profession as is possible, the New Hampshire chapter of Moms for Liberty has offered $500 to anyone who “successfully catches a public school teacher” breaking a new law banning the teaching of critical race theory. This initiative, known to its authors as “CRT Bounty’s” [sic], directs readers to the state’s Department of Education’s website, which now has a section for filing teacher complaints.

Dr. Peter Smagorinsky

Dr. Peter Smagorinsky
Dr. Peter Smagorinsky

No, not complaints made by teachers about how terrible their work conditions are. This bounty is awarded to people who report teachers who are suspected of teaching that racism exists, and is embedded in public institutions.

They have not yet undertaken a bounty program for people who don’t know how to form a plural noun ending in “y.”

Even without the bounty, the New Hampshire Board of Education has the authority to punish teachers who violate the rule that prohibits “teaching children that they are inferior, racist, sexist or oppressive by virtue of their race, gender or other characteristics.” If, that is, they are white. If they are not, the absence of any such teaching confirms to them that they are viewed as inferior, and that nobody in power cares how they feel about it.

Critical race theory is, as Mike Pence has told us, “state-sanctioned racism.” I suspect few of its critics could pass a simple comprehension test on its tenets, if the opponents I’ve seen represent the critical population. CRT is such a frightening specter that it must be banned, and its practitioners must be punished, if they can be found. And we’ve got $500 apiece for you if you can root them out.

The conservative Granite Grok website describes teachers who plan to defy the ban as “dangerous human beings, who have stewed for so long in this poisonous ideology that many of them have become self-contradicting bigots. People who, under no circumstance, should be allowed access to children, and certainly not for the purpose of molding their intellect if we can even call it that.”

What sorts of radical, far-left, America-hating, white-guilt-inducing texts might serve as the springboard for such state-sanctioned racism and the oppression of white students? Let’s take a look at one and see.

The U.S. Constitution is often studied in schools. In Georgia, “Public Law 108-447 requires the designation of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day on September 17 of each year. The purpose of Constitution Day and Citizenship Day is to commemorate the formation and signing on September 17, 1787, of the Constitution and recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”

Surely a text establishing the basis of the United States legal and governmental systems would be uncontroversial. And just as surely, teaching it may well attract the bounty hunters to your classroom.

Let’s imagine that a Georgia social studies or American literature teacher hopes to honor Public Law 108-447 by teaching the Constitution in mid-September. According to Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

Those “other Persons” not named were Black slaves, a class of people in every state of the Union circa 1787. After the Civil War, this law was revised in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment to eliminate the 3/5 provision. “Indians”? Native people were only granted citizenship to the nation established on the lands they had occupied for 12,000 years in 1924. They were considered 0/5 of a person until the year my father was born.

In both versions of the law, the rules only applied to men. Women had little access to the right to own property, vote, serve in office, and have other “natural rights” assumed to be the exclusive province of men.

Article 4, Section 2 of the original Constitution further required that escaped slaves be returned to their owners; and Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 prevented Congress from outlawing slavery until 1808.

Let’s say that a teacher assigns the Constitution for reading, and asks, What questions do you have about the Constitution? And let’s say a kid says, Why were Black people 60% of a human being, and Indians not considered people at all?

Then imagine a kid across the room seeing critical race theory at work, and ratting out the teacher to collect that $500 bounty and make sure that the teacher gets suitably punished. Does this sound like a profession that you would want to remain in, or even enter?

CRT is all about institutional racism, the ways in which racism is built into the system of governance and social life. Racism is often so well inscribed in social institutions that it’s hard to see, at least for those who benefit from it. If you find a talking fish and ask it if it lives in water, it might say, “Water? What’s that?”

Water recurs in another topic that might come up in a science class. Some people’s water is cleaner than others’, and some schools have water that runs brown. I can imagine a kid in a brown-water school wondering, Why is my school so unsanitary? A CRT bounty hunter could pocket a nice reward for helping to punish the teacher for allowing a question leading to an answer saturated in critical race theory.

In this case, the fish is in unsanitary water, making it easier to see, at least for the fish of a different color. People saturated in their own beliefs have a hard time seeing how the environment is engrained with their ideology. The New Hampshire CRT Bounty program will make sure that the discriminatory structures embedded in U.S. society from the outset remain invisible and impermeable to notice.

I would not be surprised to see a CRT Bounty Hunter Club spring up in Georgia, where school board meetings have become places where riot gear is now appropriate attire. If you thought a profound teacher shortage is imminent because of poor work conditions, wait till you see the teaching profession when an activist public bent on preserving its own status hierarchy finally breaks teachers’ backs with one threat too many.

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