How the War Over Critical Race Theory Affects Native Americans

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How the War Over Critical Race Theory Affects Native Americans

Discourse about race in America often takes on a kind of black-white dichotomy, and the panic over “critical race theory” is no different. We’ve seen images of angry white parents at protests, demanding bans on the teaching of CRT—in every grade from kindergarten to college. We’ve seen bans on teaching Martin Luther King’s writing, or reading books about Ruby Bridges—essentially any discussions of historical or current racism.

Yet we shouldn’t overlook how this manufactured moral panic affects Native American communities. Many of the laws passed by GOP-led state legislatures include language that has a direct effect on teaching about indigenous people, colonization, Western expansion, Native sovereignty and more. Rebecca Nagle, a Cherokee writer, activist and host of the This Land podcast, said that panic over CRT is just the latest version of an old reaction.

“I feel like fear of history being told more accurately has been around for a long time,” said Nagle, citing pushback against things like The New York Times’ 1619 Project, the removal of Confederate statues, or efforts to recognize Indigenous People’s Day instead of Columbus Day. “For a long time in the United States, there’s been a reluctance to tell the fullness of our history—the good and the bad.”

Part of the reason the panic over CRT has so much purchase is because the term has been made into a nebulous, catchall bogeyman—encompassing anything that deals with diversity, inclusion, ethnic studies, and a range of subjects related to race that makes parents uncomfortable. This has happened for other terms, like “woke,” for example. If these concerned parents were introduced to the panic through conservative and right-wing media, they may well be both terrified of CRT—and unable to explain precisely what it is.

“I think what’s happening across the nation is people generally misunderstand what critical race theory is,” said Elizabeth Rule, director of the AT&T Center for Indigenous Politics and Policy at American University and an enrolled member of Chickasaw Nation. “A lot of people mischaracterize it as teaching that places blame on individuals, and others are concerned that it’s a tool to create division between communities.”

Nagle argued that both the concern with and moral outrage over students’ feelings in school environments seems highly selective. For an example, she pointed to research that shows the harmful effects Native-themed mascots have on Native communities, particularly the young. Rule explained how the general lack of understanding about Native history and culture affects these communities.

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