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From the President: Recognizing the Danger

By Irene Mulvey

At a rally in South Carolina in March, Donald Trump declared, “Getting critical race theory out of our schools is not just a matter of values, it’s also a matter of national survival. We have no choice. The fate of any nation ultimately depends upon the willingness of its citizens to lay down—and they must do this—lay down their very lives to defend their country.”

Let’s be clear about his statement. The former president issued a call to citizens to enforce—with violence—government control over what can and cannot be taught in classrooms. Using an age-old tactic of demagogues, he turned critical race theory (CRT) into the “danger,” using it as a dog whistle to perk up the ears of white grievance, to warn those perked-up ears about potential progress toward racial equity, and to call those with perked-up ears to resort to violent action in order to stop that progress no matter the cost.

Our country is at an extremely dangerous tipping point, and what is at stake is democracy itself. Trump’s inflammatory call to use violence to keep CRT out of schools is an example of one aspect of the attack on democracy, but right now every key aspect of democracy is under fierce attack. We need to see the danger for what it is.

The fundamental right to vote is under attack. In 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court gutted the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965. Right now, legislation to restrict access to voting and redistricting abuses are rampant and will have the effect of suppressing the votes of people of color. Right-wing media are cynically using legal protections for a free press to push lies and disinformation for partisan gain and profit—exactly the opposite of what is needed in a free democratic society. The fundamental right to assemble peacefully is under legislative attack in many states.

Most urgent for the academic community, the need for an educated populace within a democracy is under attack. Voters must be able to understand the issues and evaluate arguments to make informed choices in the voting booth. In a blatant effort to suppress knowledge and critical thinking, educational gag orders that would restrict or prohibit what can be taught in classrooms are being proposed at an alarming rate. At last count, some twenty-three states had introduced at least forty-eight educational gag order bills targeting higher education. Educational gag orders take away our academic freedom—the cornerstone of American higher education. There is no place in a democracy for the government to prohibit the teaching of any topic.

Faculty are fighting back. At many institutions, they have organized through faculty senates to pass a resolution affirming that curricular decisions fall under the faculty’s authority. AAUP members are testifying before state legislatures, participating in rallies, emailing and calling their own representatives as well as members of relevant committees, and writing op-eds for local and national media outlets, and these actions have influenced the legislative process in states such as Indiana, Georgia, South Carolina, and Mississippi. No matter how many bills are passed, faculty will never give up on this issue, because academic freedom is crucial to higher education’s ability to carry out its function as a public good in service to democracy.

As we continue to organize as faculty and fight back, it’s important to recognize the context of these threats and the threats posed by other current legislative efforts. Although the immediate goal of many of these legislators may be to suppress voting in communities of color or to prohibit students from learning the full history of our country, the ultimate goal is to maintain a patriarchal white supremacist culture and to retain power in that culture. All these attacks represent attempts to roll back hard-won progress toward social justice and racial equity. “Don’t say gay” laws and bills targeting health care for trans youth are intended to impede progress made by the LGBTQIA community. Antiabortion laws are intended to impede progress made by women. Restrictions on peaceful assembly, suppression of voting rights, and educational gag orders are all tactics with the same goal: to target communities of color and halt progress toward a multiracial democracy.

In this alarming context, we recognize the special obligation of educators to ensure that all students in all subjects are provided the full, fair, and honest education they deserve.

Comments

I really appreciate this piece by President Mulvey. As a social work faculty member in an upper-Great Plains public university, I am alarmed at the possibility of our CSWE-accredited curriculum being forced to remove foundational course content related to social justice and anti-oppression. Our state chapter of the National Association of Social Workers has issued a Resolution stating that we reject attempts by legislative or regulatory bodies, other than NASW, CSWE, and our licensing board, to restrict or dictate university social work curricula. Our universities and country ARE "at an extremely dangerous tipping point," and I appreciate the efforts of AAUP to identify and push back against the forces that have brought us to this point.

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