HELENA — In the past month, Montana Republicans have drawn the state into a tense tug-of-war being waged in dozens of states over how public school students learn about racism in America. 

The debate has unfolded in the wake of a proposed rule from the U.S. Department of Education prioritizing racial, cultural and ethnic diversity in history and civics curriculum nationwide. The agency’s position triggered widespread conservative condemnation of a decades-old academic concept known as critical race theory, or CRT. In Montana, Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen responded to the rule in a post on the nonprofit Montana Family Foundation’s website, decrying critical race theory as “un-American” and a “rewriting of our nation’s history.” She then sent a letter to Attorney General Austin Knudsen, a fellow Republican, on May 12, requesting his office weigh in on the legality of introducing critical race theory to Montana classrooms. 

Montana
Attorney General Austin Knudsen

Knudsen responded May 27 with a 25-page legal opinion characterizing critical race theory and antiracism not as academic ideas but as potentially discriminatory ideologies propped up by universities, corporations, government agencies “and even late-night television.” 

“The CRT and ‘antiracism’ movements demonstrate that although ‘racism’ is widely understood and accepted as an epithet, it encompasses vastly different meanings for different people,” Knudsen wrote. “The gravamen of CRT and antiracism’s theories, however, rely on the popular shibboleths of ‘systemic,’ ‘institutional,’ or ‘structural’ racism. A minimal investigation into these claims exposes them as hollow rhetorical devices devoid of any legally sufficient rationale for purposes of civil rights law, as well as a threat to the stability of our institutions.”

Knudsen pledged to assist the Office of Public Instruction, along with parents, students or other Montanans, with any complaints they may have about unlawful race-based discrimination in the public education system. In response, the conservative nonprofit Alliance for Free Citizens praised Knudsen as having “destroyed any legal basis for these destructive and dangerous policies,” and urged other states to follow his lead.

“The opinion by Attorney General Knudsen is a tremendous step forward in ending the extremist doctrine,” Alliance for Free Citizens Director Joshua Pratt said in a release. “Knudsen’s assertive opinion is a model for all other right-thinking Attorney Generals throughout the nation.”

Both nationally and here at home, the heart of the conflict centers on two fundamentally opposing views on how educators deal with the topic of racism in their classrooms. Republicans argue that lessons on white privilege and systemic racism threaten to discriminate against non-minority students and undermine American values. Teachers and scholars counter that questioning the history of racism in society is an important step in understanding this country’s past and present struggles.

Eileen Sheehy, a retired social studies teacher in Billings and Montana’s 2013 Teacher of the Year, said in an interview that she interprets Knudsen’s opinion as a warning to teachers to avoid any lesson plans that may result in student discomfort, especially if they make students feel uncomfortable “because they’re white.”

“Sometimes,” Sheehy said, “you do have to be uncomfortable.”

THE NATIONAL AGENDA

Critical race theory is hardly a new concept, with roots stretching back to the work of several legal scholars in the 1970s. The American Bar Association describes it as “a practice of interrogating the role of race and racism in society” — a simple definition for an analytical style made increasingly complex by its gradual spread from one field of academia to another. One of the most popular and high-profile examples of CRT-inspired curriculum to emerge in recent years is the 1619 Project, an initiative developed by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones and the New York Times that emphasizes racism’s presence in America from the beginning of colonization. The Pulitzer Center, which administers a curriculum adapted from a New York Times Magazine series, does not maintain records on specific schools that utilize the 1619 Project, but it has received survey responses from people in 12 Montana zip codes indicating an intent to use the material.

University of Montana professor Tobin Miller Shearer

CRT can take on many different forms. But for Tobin Miller Shearer, director of African-American Studies at the University of Montana, its core purpose in the educational world remains consistent: to provide people with a framework and a language for understanding how racism persists in a country where explicit racial segregation and discrimination are no longer the law of the land.

“Basically what critical race theory does is give us a much more sophisticated set of tools to figure out what has happened and how we can keep that from happening again,” Miller Shearer said. He added that CRT has evolved to include critical examination of discrimination against other racial and ethnic groups as well as the LGBTQ community, giving rise to the pluralization “critical race theories.”

Over the past year, national conservatives have singled out CRT as a particular threat, painting it as the educational bogeyman in a leftist agenda or a tool to impose Marxist ideology on the United States. President Donald Trump openly attacked critical race theory in a speech at the National Archives last September, criticizing its candor about the history of slavery and racism in America as unpatriotic and proclaiming, “our youth will be taught to love America with all of their heart and all of their soul.” A week later Trump issued an executive order barring federal agencies and contractors from using critical race theory curriculum in diversity training as a way to “combat offensive and anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.” President Joe Biden rescinded the order in January.

This push against CRT has been led in part by a tight circle of national conservative think tanks. In December, the American Legislative Exchange Council hosted a virtual forum about the “onslaught” of critical race theory in public education, featuring speakers from the Heritage Foundation and the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. During the forum, Jonathan Butcher, a senior policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy, said the concept has “metastasized” in school systems across the country. He specifically called out lessons on intersectionality adopted in California as enabling individuals to amplify their victimhood.

Jonathan Butcher, of the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy

“There’s widespread support according to polls from EducationWeek that teachers across the country are supportive of the material in the Black Lives Matter curriculum,” Butcher added. “And that contains material about the ideas of both white supremacy and white fragility in American currency, which is supposed to be taught to elementary school students. These are not small things, these are not just sort of pieces of critical race theory that’s leaked out. This is now in our schools and before parents and educators.”

In response to this perceived threat, Republican lawmakers in 21 states have introduced bills this year aimed at curtailing CRT in K-12 education. Several have been signed into law, including in Idaho, where Gov. Brad Little approved a proposal to withhold funds from any public schools that teach CRT. Republican lawmakers in Missouri appealed to Gov. Mike Parson last month to convene a special session to debate the issue, following a failed attempt to pass legislation targeting CRT this spring. And one week before Knudsen issued his legal opinion in Montana, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt penned a letter to the U.S. Department of Education challenging the constitutionality of critical race theory

Knudsen and Schmitt were also among 20 state attorneys general who signed a similar letter requesting that the department refuse to fund educational projects that “characterize the United States as irredeemably racist or founded on principles of racism.”

Many educators have responded by renewing their commitment to encouraging critical thinking among their students, whatever the cost. In May, the Zinn Education Project, a nonprofit-backed initiative promoting complex history curriculum, began soliciting teachers nationwide to sign an online pledge to “teach the truth” about American history. To date, 4,100 educators have signed, including seven in Montana. Deborah Menkart, co-director of the Zinn Education Project, told Montana Free Press the proliferation of laws and opinions targeting CRT was “clearly an orchestrated attempt to intimidate and bully teachers,” and one that necessitated a unified national response.

“Whether or not you’re in a state with a bill passing, you still, there are parents who are still energized by what they’re hearing on Fox News and the bills of other states,” Menkart said. “So the repression is spreading.”

RESPONSE IN MONTANA

Montana Federation of Public Employees President Amanda Curtis, whose union represents Montana teachers, largely dismisses Knudsen’s opinion as an act of “political grandstanding.” She told MTFP that the actions he specifically identified as illegal — separating, grading or disciplining students or employees by race — were already illegal and not being practiced by any teachers in the state. Curtis said the opinion won’t have any significant effects on Montana educators, but she is concerned by Knudsen’s apparent objection to students engaging in potentially uncomfortable conversations about race.

MFPE President Amanda Curtis

“That’s a ridiculous stance to take, and absolutely flies in the face of academic freedom and any intellectual discourse about our history or our current set of circumstances, where we are as a society,” Curtis said.

Several of the Montana teachers who signed the Zinn Education Project’s pledge did include written statements on the importance of CRT, with one from Columbus High School expressing that educators owe their students “the best, most honest instruction we can give them” to help them become informed citizens.

Eileen Sheehy in Billings said Knudsen’s opinion may have a chilling effect on educators’ willingness to continue certain practices and a similar impact on a school official’s willingness to support a teacher using a lesson plan that revolves around critical thinking.

“For any teacher, there are certain subjects that are going to wind up in the principal’s office and you want the principal’s support in those cases,” Sheehy said. “The attorney general’s opinion, I think, would give an administrator a feeling that they shouldn’t back you up.”

The most vocal consternation over the CRT debate came early this month from the Montana American Indian Caucus. In a joint statement, the caucus’ nine members argued that “political fear mongering” by Knudsen and Arntzen threatens to erode the state’s constitutional commitment to preserving the cultural integrity of tribes through education. The statement also said that lesson plans on topics such as broken treaties, the boarding school era and the Declaration of Independence’s description of Native Americans as “merciless Indian savages” cross into the realm of critical race theory.

“The inability to cover these topics by utilizing a critical lens of academic inquiry would have the same effect as historical erasure, where Native American identity, culture, perspectives and history are not included,” the Native caucus wrote.

Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning, said in an interview that the state has made significant progress in recent decades reversing the cultural erasure promoted by boarding schools in the early 20th century. Montana’s Indian Education for All law has been on the books since 1999, and these days, public school students on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation have the opportunity to learn in their people’s language and to embrace their traditional practices. As far as Webber is concerned, any actions by elected officials that threaten to undermine those advancements won’t be met without a fight.

State Sen. Susan Webber, D-Browning

“We’ve come a long way, and Indian Education for All has taken us there,” Webber said. “We just don’t want to have to ever go back. If we do, there’s going to be a battle. We’re going to fight for what we have. We’re not going to sit back and just be onlookers anymore.”

Asked for a response to the criticism from Native lawmakers, Knudsen’s office wrote that the opinion “does not prevent any topics from being discussed or taught in schools” and maintained that “it is a violation of students’ rights if lessons or activities discriminate against students based on their race.” OPI also provided a response from Arntzen stating that the legal opinion does not restrict free speech and would not “prohibit, diminish, or hinder the Constitutionally required teaching of Indian Education for All.”

“I look forward to continuing a productive dialogue with the Caucus, and hope they will work with me on what I believe is a common area of agreement: that it’s wrong to fight discrimination with different discrimination,” Arntzen wrote. “That’s not how we prepare today’s students to be tomorrow’s citizens.”

THE CALL FOR CRITICAL THINKING

One of the teaching concepts Sheehy said is likely to trigger hesitancy among individual teachers is the use of multiple perspectives, a hallmark of social studies lessons across America’s education system. Some of those perspectives may make certain students feel uncomfortable, such as teaching Western history through a Native perspective. 

The use of multiple perspectives and differing opinions feeds directly into critical thinking, which Sheehy considers “the fundamental building block of citizenship.” And for Miller Shearer, encouraging critical thinking is a huge part of CRT. It’s not about making someone feel guilty about their race or engaging in personal attacks against specific students, he said. It’s about asking critical questions as a way of grappling with and understanding systemic problems.

“We’re not shaming anybody, we’re not calling anybody out, we’re not calling anybody racist. We’re saying this is the history of our country. We’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it.”

University of Montana professor Tobin Miller Shearer

To illustrate the point, Miller Shearer described a lecture he routinely gives to his University of Montana students about the history of race in America since Europeans first arrived in 1492 and how laws were set up to “ensure that members of the white community were given the benefit of the doubt.”

“That’s not doing any of the things that the attorney general’s opinion tells us not to do,” Miller Shearer said. “We’re not shaming anybody, we’re not calling anybody out, we’re not calling anybody racist. We’re saying this is the history of our country. We’ve got to figure out a way to deal with it because if we don’t examine it, even if it’s uncomfortable, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Miller Shearer doesn’t preface such lessons as critical race theory. But the way they’re structured does ask students to closely examine issues such as white privilege. Knudsen’s opinion highlighted privilege as a concept that can constitute compelled speech when forced on students through assignments or exercises.

“It is obvious that CRT and antiracism programming take strident positions on some of the most controversial political, societal, and philosophical issues of our time,” Knudsen wrote. “Compelling students, trainees, or anyone else to mouth support for those same positions not only assaults individual dignity, it undermines the search for truth, our institutions, and our democratic system.”

In a written response to Knudsen’s opinion posted to Facebook, Miller Shearer’s program announced that it would continue to encourage students to apply their critical thinking skills to the study of racial history and identities in America. Deep consideration of the lasting impacts of racially motivated laws is important to understanding contemporary challenges such as educational inequalities in Montana’s reservation communities, Miller Shearer said. While critics may cast CRT as unpatriotic, he views critical thinking as the best path toward embracing democratic principles.

“I am not going to step back from something in our nation’s history simply because it would challenge my understanding of who I am or the country to which I belong,” Miller Shearer said. “I want to make this country better. I want us to actually have integrity when we say we are a democracy, when we say we celebrate the values of equality and fairness and egalitarianism. I want us to be that. We’re not that yet.”

Staff reporter Alex Sakariassen covers the education beat and the state Legislature for Montana Free Press. Alex spent the past decade writing long-form narrative stories that spotlight the people, the politics, and the wilds of Montana. A North Dakota native, he splits his free time between Missoula’s ski slopes and the quiet trout water of the Rocky Mountain Front. Contact Alex by email at asakariassen@montanafreepress.org.