“This effort to suppress, to silence, to censor is a threat to democracy writ large.”
That’s how Kimberlé Crenshaw, the legal scholar widely known for her contributions to intersectionality and critical race theory, describes bans against teaching such concepts because they are purportedly divisive.
Crenshaw is leading the “Freedom to Learn” national day of action Wednesday to protest rising censorship in schools. The day of demonstration includes rallies, book readings, teach-ins and live virtual events. The goal is to build a coalition — now including civil rights groups, Black Greek-letter organizations, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association — that advocates for inclusive learning.
In February, Crenshaw, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School, learned that her work had been cut from the College Board’s new Advanced Placement African American Studies course. The news came after Florida education officials objected to the pilot curriculum’s engagement of subjects such as intersectionality, queer studies, reparations and feminist thought. Florida in recent years has passed a series of educational gag orders — legislation that limits what public school students can learn about race, gender, sexuality and injustice, among other topics.
The “Freedom to Learn” national day of action stems from an open letter that scholars and their allies sent to the College Board, urging it to preserve the integrity of AP African American Studies by not eliminating from the course “divisive concepts” and works by academics including Crenshaw, Roderick Ferguson and the late bell hooks. In April, the College Board announced that it would make changes to AP African American Studies over the next few months, but it is uncertain if it will restore the pilot curriculum.
Crenshaw told The 19th that the variety of groups coming together to protest classroom censorship indicates that the resistance movement is gaining ground. She also shared her hopes for the national day of action, defined what intersectionality and critical race theory really mean and discussed the significance of the Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in the current educational climate.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Nadra Nittle: What was the impetus for the national day of action?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Well, we’ve been active in this space since Trump signed an executive order in September 2020 labeling all of these ideas — from structural racism, critical race theory, intersectionality to basically equal opportunity, diversity, equity and inclusion — as divisive concepts and with the intention of purging all of this content out of the federal government and all of its agencies and subcontractors. So, we were activated by that.
In Florida, with [Governor Ron] DeSantis at the helm, but also in [more than 20] states, there has been legislation that has sought to ban particular ideas. We’ve said all along that this is not going to stop with efforts to ban critical race theory, however it’s being distorted and defined. It’s not going to stop with efforts to counter “The 1619 Project” with the 1776 project. It’s not going to end with “Don’t Say Gay.” This is marching across the country.
How did the College Board’s decision to narrow its AP African American Studies curriculum influence this movement?
When the College Board issued the new course framework that had been edited to get rid of the concepts that the DeSantis administration said that they objected to . . . and said had no intellectual value, that really caught a lot of folks’ attention. Within about 48 hours, nearly 5,000 people signed on to a letter demanding that the College Board . . . stand up against censorship rather than try to navigate and maneuver within this new policy regime that says we will not allow ideas to be taught that are critical of the status quo.
When they signed that letter, a lot of people said, “What’s going on? How can I get involved? What can we do?” That made it clear that the time was right to organize all of these critical energies into a line in the sand. Everybody is talking about this as an assault on our freedom to learn, our freedom to teach, our freedom to write, freedom to speak, and a lot of people are shocked that the traditional free speech-oriented forces in society are relatively mute on this issue. So that’s why we decided collectively that now’s the time. Let’s pull all of this energy together. Let’s begin to fight back on one day in which we have across the country as many events — small, large virtual, in-person — as possible so that, first of all, we see each other. We know that we’re not alone. And, second, we can begin to build the kind of networks that we’re going to need to fight what has so far been a dramatically asymmetrical war against ideas and against freedom.
The College Board recently announced that it plans to revise its AP African American Studies curriculum over the next few months. Are you hopeful that your work and that of other scholars will be added back?
Hope springs eternal, but I cannot predict what the College Board is actually going to do. And one of the reasons why it is premature to even speculate is that even in their announcement, they have not yet acknowledged the extent to which the terrain upon which they are operating has been reshaped by the censoring that is contained in these anti-divisive concepts laws. It would have been useful for them to have said, “We recognize that the very concept of democracy, equality, elections have been distorted and attacked by extremists, and we made a mistake in eliminating or even giving credence to the specious efforts to disinform the public.”
I don’t know, ultimately, what this new process is going to produce. At the end of the day, though, it’s about the broader picture of anti-democratic policies and politics and whether mainstream institutions are going to see this attack for what it is, understand their role is not to bow down in front of it, not to try to negotiate with it, but to push with everything they have against these anti-democratic moments.
You’ve said that concepts such as intersectionality and critical race theory have been distorted. Can you briefly define them?
Intersectionality was basically just a concept that said that discrimination, inequality, marginalization often is not simply a singular dynamic. It’s not just one thing for people who are both of color and women or who are queer and working class or are [disabled] and older. They exist in ways in which multiple forms of disadvantage impact their lives.
Intersectionality was simply a remedial concept that tried to use an ordinary metaphor to say, in the same way that we pass through intersections every day that feature traffic going in different directions, so do some people have to navigate a social terrain in which they’re frequently in intersectional relationships with lots of different forces. So the point was to say that when Black women, for example, make a claim that they’ve been discriminated against as Black women, it makes no sense to do what courts were doing at that point, which was to say, “Well, if this employer hires Black men, they can’t claim race discrimination. And if this employer hires White women, they can’t claim gender discrimination” when, in actuality, many times Black women experienced racism through their gender and they experienced sexism through their race. That’s what intersectionality means. It’s not just each of these are separate forms of discrimination but, in fact, for some people, they overlap. Intersectionality is an effort to make sure that no one is left out of our commitments to equity, to inclusion, to non-discrimination.
- More from The 19th
- Changes to AP African American Studies course set a ‘scary precedent,’ advocates say
- Florida bill would bring bans on gender studies and critical race theory to colleges and universities
- Mainstream education often neglects Black history. TikTok, Freedom Schools and other resources are bridging the gap.
And how do you define critical race theory?
Critical race theory is basically the study of how and why patterns of race inequality continue to reproduce themselves 60 years after the passage of the civil rights laws. It looks at rules, practices, conventions, initially in law, that allowed for and facilitated a whole range of racial disparities. It looks at how it happens, and it looks at the justifications for it.
Critical race theory now has [been] turned [by its opponents] into anything and any process that elevates race and the many different ways in which race shows up. So critical race theory is being used to say that we shouldn’t be teaching about Ruby Bridges. People call Black history critical race theory. Anything about race has now been called critical race theory. This just means that our fight or resistance has to be different. We can’t really pivot and say, “Oh, well, this isn’t critical race theory” because it makes it seem that critical race theory is a problem. And to be critical about how race has been created and framed is not a problem; ignoring it is the problem.
What do you hope the outcome is for the national day of action?
We’re basically coming to the field and we’re doing so collectively, and that is already an accomplishment for so many organizations . . . to recognize that we have a common interest in fighting back against this effort to take away the ability to talk about the continuing inequalities in our society, to take away the ability for people to learn about ideas, to decide if they agree with them or not.
The second accomplishment is that . . . we have more than 150 events happening across the country. It’s an important counter to a lot of the images that now are ubiquitous of mad parents everywhere when, in fact, many of these moments of parents going into schools fighting against critical race theory were manufactured. Most of them don’t even know what critical race theory is. So we’ve got to counteract that image that there is a groundswell. Most Americans agree with us. So our goal is to begin the process to reclaim the terrain, to allow everybody to see where our strength is and then to push back against this anti-woke censorship and make it clear to our representatives that we’re not going to stand for this censorship any longer.
If this censorship continues, what are your fears about the possible outcome, especially since many young people say they didn’t get a good education about issues such as race as it is, unless they pursued higher education, which anti-woke laws are increasingly targeting?
This is a hugely significant fight for future generations because, as you point out, they still aren’t getting a full, inclusive, critical set of tools to interpret how the ground we stand on reflects many of these moments in our history in which we were not an equal and egalitarian society and whole swathes of people were excluded and marginalized. If they don’t have those tools to interpret the contemporary world, if they can’t even debate the continuing significance of that past, then what hope do we have to continue the long process of turning ourselves into the multiracial society that we claim to want to be?
I am not at all surprised that the fight has gone to higher education. I’ve been saying for at least two years that that’s exactly where this was going to go because people who’ve been exposed to wider ways of seeing the world are not as subject to the kinds of arguments that suggest that opening up our thoughts and opening up our society is a threat to them. They recognize that there are multiple ways of being American. There are multiple ways of thinking about an inclusive democracy.
The Supreme Court is expected to end affirmative action next month. What are your thoughts on that possibility?
That inclusion is discrimination line is as old as the Republic. It was beaten back for a period of time in which higher education institutions recognized that many of the criteria used to decide who gets to take part are exclusionary. They reflect values and ways of thinking that were based on times when pretty much all higher education was White, pretty much all elite institutions were male. So we began to rethink if these standards actually determine who’s going to be a good lawyer, who’s going to be a good doctor — that’s what affirmative action meant. Taking affirmative action to interrogate, examine and dismantle unnecessary barriers to our goal of being fully inclusive institutions that fairly assess the capabilities of everybody not using biased tools that have excluded, predictably, the same people over and over again.
Now we’re poised to frame affirmative action as taking away opportunities from people even though the facts clearly state otherwise. That argument is basically a monster that is being released across society at a time when people are looking for justifications to stop talking about race and, frankly, to push different people back to where they think they belong.