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Move Over Evolution

One is tempted when writing about state legislators to wax sarcastic, as the great and much missed Molly Ivins did when she wrote some years ago that “The Texas state legislature has reconvened this week, thus depriving many a village of its idiot.” With all due respect to the Lone Star State, there are many others whose legislatures can, idiot for idiot, go toe-to-toe with Texas. Thus, many of them, about 25 at last count, are busy these days with efforts to make it more difficult for citizens to vote, all with the pretense of preventing fraudulent elections.

Of course, there is no evidence at all that any such fraud has been committed or is in danger of being committed, which means that these efforts are shamelessly self-serving and anti-democratic attempts by legislators to keep themselves and their party in power. Such behavior surely warrants sarcasm, at least, but I will avoid it, and I will also avoid discussing legislation that restricts voter access. My quarry here is of a different sort, though very much concerning state legislatures.

God and Country. These seem to be two general areas in which state legislators can work themselves up. One hundred years ago, it was God that concerned them, specifically the perceived challenges to God represented by the biological theory of evolution. Many people around the country felt that their comfortable religious conceptions were being undermined by the theory of evolution, and so some legislatures took it upon themselves to outlaw the teaching of evolution in public schools.

The issue came to a head when in 1925 a schoolteacher in Tennessee violated the Butler Act, his state’s restrictions on the teaching of the evolution of human beings, and was arrested and brought to court in the famous Scopes trial. Mr. Scopes lost that trial, though his conviction was reversed on appeal. The state’s prohibition remained for some time, until 1967 in fact, and after the trial attempts were made in California and Arizona to ban the teaching of evolution there.

The issue has not gone away, as we know. In 1999 the Kansas State School Board removed the teaching of evolution from the state’s required curriculum, and as recently as a few days ago the always entertaining Marjorie Taylor Green remarked on Steve Bannon’s podcast that “I do not believe in evolution. I believe in God.” But if we restrict ourselves to state legislatures, their treatment of the teaching of evolution in the schools illustrates the penchant on the part of local legislators to react against ideas and theories that upset their comfortably held views of things. When they thought that the theory of evolution would upend their religious beliefs, and their sense of their privileged place in creation, they attempted to ban it from the schools.

Apparently, old habits die hard. When one is threatened by the academic work of scholars and teachers, it seems that the almost instinctive response is to use legislative power to crush it.

Today the issue is not God but Country, specifically the fear that entrenched conceptions of the country as inherently virtuous and largely free of the stain of racism may be disturbed by a set of ideas that is being referred to as Critical Race Theory (CRT). Initially, this theory was an attempt to understand how it could be that even with the civil rights laws that were put in place in the 1960s and 70s, there was relatively little easing of racial disparities in economic and social conditions and opportunities.

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The theory’s explanation was that to some extent and in specifiable ways, racism is built into the economic and power structures of the society, so that it will take more than laws and moral encouragement to correct the resulting imbalances and injustice. CRT percolated in law, sociology, politics, economics, history, and philosophy for decades, and over time it became more widely accepted. At this point, the idea that racism is structural and systemic appears in university courses and in some curricula in public schools.

The idea is that if we wish to create a more just society, and even if we simply wish to understand American society and history better, we need to abandon the assumption that the US is fundamentally just and virtuous, and look with a fresh eye. The traditional and accepted view of American moral righteousness has tended to produce an understanding of our society and our history that overlooks, some would say suppresses, both the impact of the dominant power structures on people of color, woman, and working people, and indeed the roles such people have played in our history. That we will understand American history and society better by eliminating these blind spots has been the driving assumption of such work as Howard Zinn’s well-known A People’s History of the United States, and more recently The New York Times’ 1619 Project.

Such a differently inflected approach to our history and society is an improvement, its adherents say, but like evolution a century ago, it has threatened the more self-righteous view of the country with which many other Americans are comfortable. The latter set of people includes many conservative state legislators, and they, with even more enthusiasm than their institutional predecessors did 100 years ago, are responding by passing laws that prohibit CRT, or various sets of ideas that occasionally go by that name, from being taught in public schools, and even in universities.

Apparently, old habits die hard. When one is threatened by the academic work of scholars and teachers, it seems that the almost instinctive response is to use legislative power to crush it. One is obliged to point out that this worked somewhat in the short run with evolution, but not over time. The same is likely to be true for the long-term consequences of our increasingly sophisticated understanding of race in the society.

One should be aware that not everything that is said under the name of evolution is necessarily true. Social Darwinism comes to mind. Evolution is, after all, a developing theory, as active science should be, and its propositions are subject to ongoing review, revision, and refinement. The same is true of CRT. In its name, there are no doubt people who make claims that are indefensible, for example that children, or any of us, are guilty of something simply because of our race, but over time, and in the normal course of scholarly and pedagogical events, those ideas will wither away and be replaced with more justifiable conceptions.

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No efforts by state legislatures, other than increased funding for the scholars and teachers who are working on these matters, will have any valuable effect at all. One would like to think that state legislators would have learned their lesson from the experience with evolution, but apparently not yet. Hope springs eternal.

And who knows? Maybe someday we’ll actually be able to build all working people back into American society and the story of its development, instead of a history written largely from the economic top. Are there any state legislatures on board for that?

John Ryder