Randi Kreiss

Are we immune to Texas-style xenophobia?


There is a trifecta of trouble deep in the heart of Texas: Gov. Greg Abbott, the Texas legislature and the Texas Board of Education. Last week they joined forces to launch a number of conservative initiatives that could be heading to a community near you soon. My concern is that these initiatives are seeded with a brand of xenophobia and racism that is spreading nationwide.

This is a cautionary tale, because what happens in Texas doesn’t stay in Texas. I wrote about this over a decade ago, when the state used its massive buying power (it has some five million schoolchildren) to influence how the nation’s history books would be written. At the time, the Texas school board consulted no historians, sociologists or economists before creating more than 100 amendments to the social studies curriculum.

It decided, unilaterally, to focus more on the military, Christian values, modern Republican office holders and American enterprise (while banning the word “capitalism”). Specifically, it chose to note the contributions of George Wallace, Lester Maddox and Phyllis Schlafly. Texas could do that because it was buying more social studies books than any other state, and the publishers of those books were willing to consider alternative facts.

In January, The New York Times analyzed the most widely used textbooks in Texas and California, the most populous state. Dana Goldstein reported that while social studies books generally covered the same history, the content “diverges in ways that reflect the nation’s deepest partisan divides.” She said there were hundreds of differences between the Texas version of the textbooks and the California version, some subtle, others “extensive.” That’s crazy.

Last week the Texas legislature passed the most restrictive anti-choice law in the land, making abortions illegal any time after a heartbeat is detected, which could be just six weeks after conception, before most women know they are pregnant.

But Texans will be Texans: Paxton Smith, 18, surprised an audience of family and friends at her commencement at Lake Highlands High School in Dallas when she offered a passionate support of a woman’s right to abortion. Her talk went viral after she ditched her “vetted” graduation speech and said what she really wanted to say.

Last week, Texas also took aim at “critical race theory,” the concept that racism is systemic, not just a collection of individual prejudices. Critical race theory, as I read it, urges educators to help students see how racism in America has affected education, law, entertainment — in fact, every facet of our national life.

The concept has ignited cultural wildfires. People are reacting — not thinking, not listening, just pulling hot-button words like “reparations” out of the air. Part of the problem is the actual language of the initiative. Critical race theory is not an easily accessible term. But it suggests finding common ground and creating equal opportunity and acceptance where there has been bias. It suggests it isn’t enough to right the historical wrongs; the wrongs must be acknowledged.

Last week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis demanded that the state Board of Education kill this race initiative. “If we have to play whack-a-mole all over this state, stopping this critical race theory, we will do it,” he said.

I see this as a teachable moment for those of us not fully aware of the toxic effects of racism manifested during our lifetime. I don’t think I completely understand critical race theory, but I do understand that it will shine a light in some dark corners of American history.

America’s story is threaded with racial bias. Does anyone seriously question that we would move forward more effectively if we all move together? Does Texas really think it can suppress its non-white majority in coming elections?

Activism begins at the school board. Whether or not Texas-style conservatism heads our way, whether or not our local districts bring critical race theory into the curriculum, serving on a school board keeps us informed and offers a platform for our views.

South Africa confronted apartheid. Germany acknowledged the Holocaust. We Americans have a tragic history of racism that began with slavery and has never ended. We cannot be afraid to look at our own past.

I recently came across a photo from the 1940s of a young boy of 8 or 9 drinking from a “colored” water fountain in North Carolina. That is the definition of systemic racism, and proof that racial bias and the American legal system have been intertwined during our ongoing fight for equality in the United States.

Copyright 2021 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.