Kentucky Republicans dishonestly claim race education bill isn’t whitewashed history
Kentucky State Sen. Max Wise . | Timothy D. Easley / AP

Kentucky state Sen. Max Wise (R-Campbellsville) evidently figured rubbing a smidgen of whitewash off Senate Bill 138 would convince critics that his legislation isn’t really aimed at gagging teachers and whitewashing history.

It still is, of course.

SB 138, like its companions (House Bills 14, 18, and 487), limits classroom discussion of systemic racism. As such, all four measures mirror the national right-wing furor over Critical Race Theory, a scholarly study of how systemic racism affects law and society. Never mind that CRT is taught in law schools and some graduate schools, not elementary or secondary schools.

“Unfortunately, critical race theory is being used as a straw man by opportunistic politicians and others who want to promote, rather than resolve, conflict to further their own dubious agendas,” Jill Kerper Mora wrote in the Times of San Diego.

“A straw man argument is where a false representation of a concept is constructed for the purpose of attacking certain premises or practices. The author of an argument builds a straw man and then, metaphorically, sets it on fire. This generates much more heat than light.”

The GOP supermajority State Senate approved Wise’s straw man bill on a straight party line vote, 28-8. It’s headed for the House where the Republicans enjoy a 75-25 bulge.

Kentucky has a Democratic governor, Andy Beshear. But under the state constitution, it takes only a simple majority of both chambers to override a veto.

Wise said he changed some parts of his original bill because of “misunderstandings,” the Lexington Herald-Leader reported. In other words, the senator concluded he needed to do a better job of hiding its real purpose.

“Wise said the bill gives school employee guidance on materials, but as a result of the revisions ‘we are not telling teachers what they can and cannot teach and what our students can and cannot learn,’” wrote the H-L’s Valarie Honeycutt Spears.

Baloney, senator

Critics rightly remain skeptical of SB 138, though some say the revised version is better than the original.

In a post on his blogsite, Forward Kentucky publisher Bruce Maples wrote that Wise “much improved” the original bill by crossing out “the problematic ‘teach the good side of the Holocaust’ language. … In addition, there were tweaks to the bill that made it less amorphous and seemingly a little less ‘OMG CRT!’ focused.”

But Maples still isn’t a fan of SB 138: “This is still not a great bill. It dictates curriculum at a level of detail that falls outside the normal purview of the legislature. It still has the ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ language, without acknowledging the issue of systemic racism. And, it still pushes discussion of American ideals, without also discussing our history of departure from those ideals. (And, it still has Ronald Reagan’s commercial for Barry Goldwater listed as one of the required items.)”

After the vote, Kentucky Education Commissioner Jason Glass said he was grateful that Wise incorporated “suggestions into the revisions,” Spears wrote. But Glass said, “our concern remains that the state legislature, through a process that is political by design, is mandating curricular resources.”

Translation: Wise and the Republicans are still telling teachers what to teach

In a similar vein, Rebecca Powell concedes that “overall … the revision is better than the original SB 138.” A member of KY 120 United – American Federation of Teachers, she’s a professor emeritus and former director of the Center for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy at Georgetown, Ky., College. (KY 120 remains firmly opposed to all the anti-CRT bills.)

But in pushing the four bills, Republican lawmakers are going against state law “to create standards that teachers must follow,” according to Powell.

“There’s a very comprehensive and rigorous process for developing curriculum standards in our state. The law specifies the development process in great detail, including who should serve on the committees, who has oversight, and the process for obtaining public input. With all of these curriculum bills, the legislature is circumventing the laws that they created by dictating what should be included in the social studies standards. Clearly, this is extremely problematic.”

Education Committee member Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, turned thumbs down on the revised bill for good reason. “Our teachers must not be censored and our history must not be skewed,” Spears quoted her.

Bill Mulligan, a Murray, Ky., State University historian, agreed that the four bills are an attempt “to dictate what amounts to an official version of American history” by downplaying “conflict and failures to live up to our lofty ideals.”

The professor says the flood of anti-CRT bills remind him of the post-Civil War white supremacist “Lost Cause” historians who falsely claimed slavery had little or nothing to do with America’s most lethal conflict. Sympathetic to the defeated Confederates, they “rewrote the history of the Civil War and the events leading up to it with almost complete disregard for factual evidence of what actually happened.”

Likewise, conservative 20th century “consensus historians”—white, Protestant, native-born men in the main—taught that “America was a great, democratic nation, God-fearing as well.” They passed over or short-shrifted “the great labor struggles of the late nineteenth century; and they also ignored nativism, other discrimination against immigrants, Catholics, and Jews; and essentially ignored the contributions of women and Blacks.”

Similarly, white, right-wing politicians pushing anti-CRT bills want “to sanitize and literally whitewash our past to achieve some kind of false comfort, which really is a sham and illusion,” according to Mulligan.

In the 1960s, a younger and more diverse group of historians began to challenge the consensus school. “The G.I. Bill opened up opportunities for the children of immigrants and for white ethnics of non-Protestant backgrounds to go to university, and many of them went on to get PhDs,” Mulligan said. “They began writing a history of the United States that included their experience and their history.

“As African Americans entered the mainstream of the historical profession, they began writing about slavery and Jim Crow and a variety of topics that had affected their history and offered a different perspective and a different experience from the consensus school and its glorification and idealization of the American experience. Women’s history follows much the same path; as women entered academia, they began writing history that included them.”

Mulligan called the anti-CRT movement “a reaction against the inclusive and, I would argue, much more accurate, history of the United States that has been written over the last 50 or 60 years. This reaction has been weaponized by those who want to preserve and protect the white patriarchy and the privileged position of white people, in general, in our society.”

He said the backlash began when “George Wallace first began to mobilize white anxiety about Black progress. It accelerated greatly with Nixon’s Southern Strategy and Ronald Reagan’s racist vision of the U.S., presented, of course, with a smile and command of the TV cameras. Donald Trump has simply taken it and opened the doors full to let out all the demons and all the fears for political advantage.”

Mulligan said opposition to CRT “is well-funded by very conservative, anti-democratic (with small ‘d’) forces within our society who want to preserve the privilege of the rich and are having quite a bit of success fueled by the Citizens United decision.”

Mulligan defined CRT as “an intellectually valid way to look at how the system, broadly speaking, in the United States, favors whites without always a clear intention to do so. That tradition and custom, among other things built into the structure of the system, militate against openness and equity. I think one can argue about the extent to which this is true, but to deny that it happens is impossible.”

Mulligan said the anti-CRT bills clearly are a ruse. “Under the guise of protecting innocent young children from critical race theory, we see an effort to eliminate those aspects of our history that do not reflect well upon us. The idea that we should not study things that make us uncomfortable is ludicrous on its face. Studying the Holocaust, for example, or slavery should make one uncomfortable because it highlights just what great evil human beings are capable of.”

He added that exploring topics like slavery and the Holocaust “also involves seeing how people fought against evil. There were many who helped Jews escape. … Allied forces liberated the camps, and people were held accountable for their actions. In the end, humanity triumphed over evil.”

He said the same was true of slavery. “It was a brutal institution, and that needs to be known so that we can avoid falling into the intellectual ideas that allowed it. But … white and Black people worked together in the Underground Railroad, in abolitionist groups, and in many other ways to eliminate slavery. After the end of slavery, large numbers of white people went and worked in schools and other programs to assist the newly freed. Again the total story … is not just the story of great evil, but also a resistance to that evil and [the] ultimate triumph [of good].”

He warned, “Not knowing the truth about the past can only harm us as a society. Ignorance is not bliss; ignorance puts us at great peril” of falling “into a more modern version of the same evils, or newer ones, and to reverse progress we have made.”

Mulligan said Germany has meaningfully confronted and acknowledged the evils of Hitler, Nazism, and the Holocaust. “There is a tremendous museum exhibit in the former Nazi Party headquarters in Nuremberg on the Nazi era and it asks a simple question in its title: ‘How were we led to such horrible things?’ There are no pulled punches. There is no attempt to sanitize it. The exhibit looks directly at the horror and asks ‘How did we let this happen?’—which is to say, ‘We [the German people] were responsible as a nation.’”

Would that we would follow Germany’s lead and confront our own past—instead of continuing to whitewash it.


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.