It was the early 1950s and America was on red alert. Communists could be lurking in boardrooms, lecture halls, movie sets, even the nation’s highest offices. Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy, a far-right Republican, fanned the flames of suspicion and panic. He claimed to have a list of Soviet sympathizers and spies working in the State Department. Later, he alleged infiltrations of the White House and Army. His investigations – which ruined lives and careers – turned up nothing but hot air.
An uncomfortable chapter in American history, it illustrates how fear related to real events — in this case the Cold War — can build even without a solid foundation of facts. That is, until the whole thing comes crumbling down.
Echoes of the Red Scare are playing out in school committee meetings, state houses and local elections across the country. This time the boogeyman is critical race theory (CRT), and the furor comes on the heels of Black Lives Matter protests and national discourse about race. The civil rights movement took off around the time of McCarthy’s downfall. Just how far have we come since then?
Not nearly far enough, according to CRT, a graduate-level academic framework that considers how race and racism have played out — and continue to play out — in institutions such as education, voting rights, the courts and healthcare. Opponents decry CRT, saying it sows division. Children, they worry, are being indoctrinated. Never mind that many public school officials had to Google search the definition of critical race theory before confirming that they do not, in fact, teach anything of the sort.
Yet, suspicions have been cast on school staff trainings on diversity and inclusion, history lessons and so-called “social-emotional learning.” The latter teaches children about social and self-awareness and responsible decision-making. New Age-y, sure, but not nefarious.
Ellsworth School Board candidate Casey Hardwick, who lost by a narrow margin Nov. 2, said that “once you dig in, there’s concerning items” in the social-emotional learning program. She said many feel it’s a cover for critical race theory. She campaigned on the slogan “bring back the basics.”
CRT is also a concern for Daisy Wight, a write-in candidate for a one-year seat on the Ellsworth School Board. Wight lost to Tara Keeleen Young, whose name appeared on the ballot. Wight received 454 votes — an impressive showing for a last-minute write-in campaign.
On her campaign Facebook page, she shared a chart from the Cultural Competence Institute organized by the Maine School Boards Association and the Maine School Superintendents Association and attended by local educators. “I don’t even truly understand it all, but I am learning more and more every day,” Wight wrote. “And I don’t like it … If I can’t understand it, I can’t stand behind it. Is this CRT by another name?”
John Linnehan, who lost his bid for City Council this month, weighed in on his “John Linnehan Freedom Fighter” Facebook page. “CRT (Critical Race Theory) as you are exposing is a huge negative for our children and our nation!” But no need to waste a good acronym; he offered his own alternative. “My CRT is Christ’s Religious Teachings.”
None of the candidates offered a shred of convincing evidence that Ellsworth schools are teaching CRT or telling their (mostly white) student body that they should be ashamed of their skin color. Their messaging resonated with many voters, nonetheless. Some of the same people who denounce the “fear-driven agenda” when it comes to COVID-19, seem perfectly content letting fear drive the bus on CRT.
As we mused over our own education in the Ellsworth schools, we recalled another tidbit from our history lessons. Back in 1950, it was a Mainer who stood up to McCarthy and his wild accusations.
Sen. Margaret Chase Smith delivered her “Declaration of Conscience” speech in June 1950. “Today our country is being psychologically divided by the confusion and the suspicions that are bred in the United States Senate to spread like cancerous tentacles of ‘know nothing, suspect everything’ attitudes.” She told fellow senators she did “not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny-Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”
We wouldn’t want to see anyone ride that wave to local political office either.