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Editorial: New anti-CRT bill wants teachers prosecuted as criminals

Lincoln debating Douglas

Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Anyone who lives by the word might well think twice before bringing the hammer of criticism down when someone else’s mistake makes it into print.

Talk to anyone who has worked in any aspect of the publishing business and you’ll hear anecdotes of typos or screw-ups that in hindsight seem painfully obvious yet somehow made it through multiple drafts and a crowd of copy editors to be inked onto a printed page forever.

Yet context matters. A bill intended to restrict how the history of race relations in America can be taught in Virginia’s public schools that simultaneously gets that history wrong — that’s fair game.

At no time in the history of the United States did a Republican Senate candidate named Abraham Lincoln have a debate with Black American abolitionist and civil rights pioneer Frederick Douglass. (Lincoln’s debate opponent was Democrat Stephen Douglas, with one “s.”)

Yet this proposed bill as written requires that every Virginia student be familiar with this fictional debate.

The author of the bill in question, newly elected Del. Wren Williams, R-Patrick, shared a statement from the Virginia Division of Legislative Services in which the nonpartisan agency took the blame for the error — though it will likely make little difference.

Regardless of how the error happened, Williams was the one called out in the New York Times, Washington Post, Newsweek and the British newspaper The Guardian, among many others. His fellow legislators are unlikely to let him forget it.

The flap over the faux pas, however, served to distract from the actual contents of the bill. Williams pledged to his supporters that the first thing he would do once he was elected was sponsor a bill to ban “critical race theory” from Virginia schools, and this is the fulfillment of that promise, which calls for any teacher caught promoting a “divisive concept” to be fined up to $250 (the punishment for a class 4 misdemeanor) and lose their job or have their license revoked or suspended.

It’s difficult to wrap one’s mind around the notion that this isn’t a joke, that — separate from the question as to whether critical race theory is even being taught in any Virginia classroom — this legislation proposed in America in 2022 genuinely seeks to criminalize an academic school of thought that the author of the bill disagrees with. The Politburo would be proud.

During a recent Fox News interview, new Gov. Glenn Youngkin acknowledged there’s no K-12 course teaching “critical race theory,” but insisted, “There are absolutely the tenets of CRT present in the schools.”

His executive order pursuing a ban on CRT at least aims at changing policy rather than saddling teachers with criminal records.

Here’s an exercise. Let’s consider what risk a teacher might expose themselves to when introducing students to the first Lincoln-Douglas debate, the real debate that this bill intends to assign as mandatory reading.

The Lincoln who spoke then — three years before the the Civil War began, four years before the Emancipation Proclamation — had not yet evolved into the man we now lionize.

As people say on social media: trigger warning, racism.

In this debate, which took place Aug. 21, 1858 in Ottawa, Illinois, Douglas argued that allowing individual states to decide whether or not to allow slavery was essential to maintaining the union, and accused Lincoln of supporting the abolition of slavery and equal rights for Black citizens, which he argued would destroy the country.

“I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form,” Douglas said. “I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever, and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians, and other inferior races.”

In his response, Lincoln stated his opposition to slavery but insisted he thought it best for the institution of slave-holding to gradually die out. He denied he had any intent to bring about its swift end.

“I have no purpose, directly or indirectly, to interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists. I believe I have no lawful right to do so, and I have no inclination to do so. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln stated that he believed Black Americans should share the inalienable rights outlined in the Declaration of Independence, but as for any political and social equality between the races, he had no intention of bringing about such “bad results.”

Any reasonable student of history could say, correctly, that reducing the debate to these excerpts leaves out a lot of essential context. But how might the standard of “divisive concept” apply?

Here are a couple of notions the bill seeks to attach criminal penalties to if shared in a classroom: any assertion that “one race, religion, ethnicity, or sex is inherently superior to another race, religion, ethnicity, or sex” (an offense that both Douglas and Lincoln commit during this debate) or that “the Commonwealth or the United States is fundamentally or systemically racist” — consider how Douglas proclaims the U.S. government was founded “by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever.” How might sharing these divisive concepts in a history class get misconstrued?

These are words from history, but might a teacher not quail at the thought of being required to teach this in the classroom, given the potentially career-ending consequences?

Perhaps this bill doesn’t warrant this level of scrutiny. If it makes it out of committee, it would likely die a swift death in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

In the wake of the Youngkin-led electoral sweep in November that upended a decade of Democratic victories in statewide races, there’s been pushback downplaying the significance of all the anti-“critical race theory” rhetoric in fueling that victory. Pandemic-driven school shutdowns that thrust the burden of teaching kids on resource-strapped parents mattered more, supposedly.

If that’s the case, though, why does this snipe hunt for secret CRT cabals continue? Why does this silly yet scary bill even exist? It uses insinuations of George Orwell’s “thoughtcrime” in an attempt to make “thoughtcrime” a reality.

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