Imagination and Possibility in a Society of Silencing & Conformity
In a May article I wrote in response to the fear-mongering and ignorance around the banning of critical race theory (CRT), I made the claim that one of our greatest weapons in dismantling systemic racism and institutional bias is educational reform. I wrote this article with my 14-year-old daughter, Isabel, in mind, thinking about how much more I wanted for her than the sterilized, whitewashed version of U.S. history that continues to perpetuate white dominance, slamming doors of possibilities for students of color. And I wrote this article because it infuriates me that many white children grow up with an inflated sense of self whereas many Black and brown children internalize a sense of being less than due to limited possibilities. Yet, while I still believe that we need an overhaul of public schools, my solution in my previous piece was too simplistic nor did I contextualize or historicize the issue. Also, I failed to provide an understanding of how the attack on CRT is one anti-democratic battle in the war being waged by elitists to maintain power through silencing and conformity. Here I’ll turn to history to help shed light on patterns of repressive tactics on movements of resistance, mirroring what we see today. Finally, a more radical understanding of possibility is needed than what I offered before. That is, in solidarity with others, we need to carve spaces of resistance in the attack on democracy, beginning with imagining possibilities that change “not possibles” to “what ifs.” The late Maxine Greene states, “Imagination summons up visions of a better state of things, an illumination of the deficiencies in existing situations.”
Let’s be clear: there’s a powerful neoliberal agenda mostly led by the right-wing that’s attacking all forms of democratic projects in the U.S. from voter expansion to public funding for social programs to teaching CRT in schools. The attack on the latter is one in a series of carefully calibrated moves to hold onto power. In a recent NPR interview, Gloria Ladson-Billings, one of the first scholars to apply CRT in education says, “(CRT) is a red herring … What people are really going after is the 2022 and the 2024 elections.” She and other scholars, including Princeton Professor of African American Studies, Eddie Glaude Jr., are not surprised that CRT laws are actually showing up in those states with voter suppression laws. Ladson-Billings noted that the right-wing wants to “gin up a culture war,” arguing points, such as CRT is racist and makes white children feel badly. Though we’ve made progress in this country, anyone who actually reads material on CRT will see that it’s not a Marxist tool to indoctrinate nor does it blame individuals, rather it offers students lenses to study how race and racism have shaped the policies, systems, and institutions in the U.S. It’s one of many steps we need to take toward racial reckoning in this country, a way for us to spotlight existing and prolonged inequities, disrupting myths of meritocracy, exceptionalism, and white superiority ingrained in our nation’s psyche.
Right now type in critical race theory in the search bar of your browser. What do you notice? Mostly likely web page after web pages of varied viewpoints across the political spectrum. You might notice titles, like “CRT Has Its Day in Court” or “Texas Teachers Fear Effects of CRT Law” or “Colorado Students Are Being Fed the Poison Fruits of CRT.” Ultimately, what the elite want to do is politicize education, rather than recognize the political in education. Henry Giroux, McMaster University theorist of critical pedagogy, states that political education “operates in the interest of empowerment, giving people the knowledge, skills, and histories they need to be able to make decisions about how to control their lives” whereas politicizing education “is often grounded in a combination of self-righteousness and ideological purity that silences students as it imposes ‘correct’ positions.” The Marjorie Taylors of the world prefer to amplify false narratives or conspiracy theories to ensure power remains invisible, to stoke fears that divide by blaming “others,” to divert people from the failures of the governing party, and to keep the public uninformed and uncritical. In other words, to use a term coined by Giroux, those in power are adept at manufacturing ignorance.
History shows us that whenever there were pockets of resistance fighting for the right to thrive, the ruling class redoubled their efforts to suppress and oppress through violence and insidious tools of propaganda. Recall the Third Reich’s diabolical design of genocide on the Jewish race through simultaneous book burning and the methodical and efficient use of media as a tool for indoctrination; or think about the enslavement of Black bodies and minds where learning to read was punishable by death while society at large was fed lies of Manifest Destiny and a predestined superior race; or consider the requirement of literacy tests after the 15th amendment compounded by KKK night stalkers, using The Birth of a Nation as a bible to rekindle recruitment efforts and campaigns of terror on Black citizens. We see that the history of fascism starts with language, and an analysis of today’s attacks on CRT reveal how frighteningly similar they are to the propaganda machines of the past as a means to colonize an unthinking public’s minds with ideologies couched in terms like “unpatriotic” or “individual rights’’ or “anti-American,” which, as Giroux teaches us, hide a “dysfunctional form of domination” that doesn’t address power imbalances or challenge economic or racial hierarchies. The banning of CRT or curricula that broadens our collective story, such as The NYT 1619 Project, is a subversive attempt at conformity through erasure of the past. Without critical consciousness we become a misinformed public holding onto “common sense” — not to be confused with good sense — that is, according to Italian philosopher and linguist Antonio Gramsci, “a worldview uncritically accepted within the various social and cultural environments.” What is not understood by those taking an anti-CRT stance is that moral critique leaves room for a profound sense of social responsibility and love. James Baldwin eloquently stated, “I love America more than any other country in the world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”
And so here is where we ask ourselves, “What next?” Since much of what we learn occurs outside of schools, we can’t leave radical activism to equity-minded educators and a few roaming do-gooders as I naively suggested in my prior article. What each one of us needs to do to combat futility is to engage in radical imagination that, according to Maxine Greene, rounds out the incompleteness of meaning through the “projection of possibilities.” And just like teachers encourage students to choose books that speak to them, we need to start by searching out transformative intellectuals who can provide us with guideposts in our work to effect change. It might be Myles Horton, who established the Highlander School in Appalachia to empower and organize union workers and activists, such as Rosa Parks. From him we can learn a grass roots approach that requires one thoroughly understand the locale and politics of the community being served. Or it could be bell hooks who teaches us about radical love and radical openness and the value of finding points of resonance or harmony even when experiencing deep divides with others. Or Cornel West who has been lambasted for voicing unpopular opinions on controversial issues, or, as he puts it, “maintaining moral consistency,” yet reminds us to “find joy in what we do.” It is then, in the tradition of those intellectuals, that our discernment of a path forward becomes imaginable. And those possibilities multiply innumerably when we join others of differing perspectives and diverse racial and cultural backgrounds.
I began by sharing how I wrote on this topic with my daughter Isabel in mind, wanting a better education for her and other children, one that bends towards social justice. I now better understand that in order for this to happen we all need to join a collective struggle, imagining new realities for the kind of world we want to live in: a world where all people have access to quality healthcare and clean water, a world where there’s respect for wildlife and pristine lands free from human activity, a world where voices of dissent are welcomed and valued, a world where, in the words of Audre Lorde, we “recognize difference as a crucial strength.”