Yesterday Governor Kristi Noem tooted her own horn for coercing the Board of Regents into approving a draft policy “restricting the teaching of Critical Race Theory at state colleges and universities.” For their part, the Regents trotted out their newest members, all Republican toadies appointed in April, to croak for whatever anti-anti-racist propaganda Noem is pushing:
The board’s statement frames its position around four central tenets: (1) offering opportunity for all students; (2) proudly supporting the United States of America; (3) safeguarding the rich tradition of American universities; and (4) offering curriculum based upon widely held and accepted knowledge and thought.
The statement recognizes the importance of teaching public university students in South Dakota about America’s history, the system of individual liberty in a democratic republic, and the free enterprise system. “Part of that instruction is to acknowledge and discuss America’s flaws and mistakes, so that we can learn from them and improve,” it says. “Critical Race Theory is not the basis for instruction in our state universities and it’s not going to be. But this is a label that means different things to different people,” said Regent Tony Venhuizen. “That’s why our board today is taking a step back and stating the American values that will continue to guide the university system.”
“We are committed to programs that enhance a wide ranging knowledge of American government and its traditions,” said Regent Jeff Partridge. “As part of that, we are prepared to offer new opportunities for students to increase their civic engagement and develop skills in communication, critical thinking, civility, and dispute resolution.”
Regents recognize that South Dakota’s public universities are part of the rich tradition of American universities, a tradition built upon free speech, scientific discovery, and academic freedom. “As our students expand their understanding in a field of study, we encourage that students be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, ideas, and theories, so that they can be debated and critiqued,” the statement says [South Dakota Board of Regents, press release, 2021.08.05].
Wait a minute: even the toadies seem to be croaking out of tune with Queen Frog. Noem and her merry fascists are saying they are going to “ban” critical race theory. But Venhuizen, the smartest of this warty bunch, suggests there’s nothing to ban, that our universities are not basing and will not base their instruction on critical race theory. Noem’s former chief of staff speaks as if the universities’ status quo has been following “American values” just fine all along. Former legislator Partridge doesn’t mention critical race theory; his statement about the universities’ commitment to enhancing “a wide-ranging knowledge of American government and its traditions” seems to call for exactly the opposite of what Noem says she’s about; as a matter of fact, critical race theory seeks exactly what Partridge describes: critical thinking about the traditions of racism that have built systemic discrimination into our laws and institutions, with the goal of improving communication and helping resolve disputes and make American government better.
And the new draft policy itself never mentions critical race theory. It wallows in some dismissive “All Lives Matter” racism—responding to concerns of systemic racism with bland declarations of colorblind support for every individual deliberately misses the point, devalues valid critiques of genuine discrimination, and thus perpetuates the problem—it engages in greater contortions to avoid saying exactly what Noem wants us to think it says about the hobbyhorse she wants to ride into the 2024 election. Let’s read each of the four points of the Regents’ statement:
1. South Dakota’s state universities offer opportunity for all students, to benefit from education and to prepare to live and work in South Dakota, or anywhere in the world. We do not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity, religion, disability, veteran status, economic status, or sexual preference. We treat each person as an individual, not as a member of a group, and offer services and supports for each person’s individual situation. We reject, and will not promote, the idea that any individual person is responsible for actions taken by other people. We also reject, and will not promote, any suggestion that one group of people is inherently superior or inferior to another group, or is inherently oppressive or immoral [South Dakota Board of Regents, “Opportunity for All” statement, approved 2021.08.05].
Critical race theory does not make claims about individuals, other than to grant that individuals choose their own membership in social categories and belief systems regardless of identities that outsiders may attempt to impose on them. Critical race theory can’t promote any notion of one racial group’s inherent superiority, inferiority, immorality, or penchant for oppression, because critical race theory holds that race is not inherent, not biological, not essential, but a social construct. Critical race theory actually responds to those who adopted such fallacious racial essentialism and who therethrough baked racism into our legal system. So on this first point, the Regents’ statement is right in line with critical race theory.
2. South Dakota’s state universities are public, taxpayer-funded institutions. It is inherent in the missions of our universities to proudly support the United States of America. Our students will learn about America’s history, our system of individual liberty in a democratic republic, and our system of free enterprise. Part of that instruction is to acknowledge and discuss America’s flaws and mistakes, so that we can learn from them and improve. We celebrate, though, America’s role in recent world history, as the nation most responsible for expanding liberty, prosperity, and equality across the globe [SDBOR, 2021.08.05].
The Regents aver that our professors will lead students to “acknowledge and discuss America’s flaws and mistakes, so that we can learn from them and improve.” That’s exactly what Noem herself did last month when she talked about the need to learn from our nation’s racist mistakes in its Indian boarding school policies. That’s exactly what critical race theory calls on us to do.
3. South Dakota’s state universities are a part of the rich tradition of American universities, which are built upon free speech, scientific discovery, and academic freedom, and for that reason have been emulated by the rest of the world. We commit our state universities to a focus on the future: preparing the leaders and scholars of the next generation to solve the problems of tomorrow. Although we can learn from and understand the past, we do this so we can learn to be better in the future, and we will never compel any person to accept any particular set of beliefs [SDBOR, 2021.08.05].
Now the Regents are really parrying Noem’s attack. They assert that “free speech” and “academic freedom” have made our universities global leaders. They reiterate the critical race theorist’s commitment to understanding and learning from the past “so we can learn to be better in the future.” And in speaking of never compelling anyone to accept any beliefs (yeah, sure, but if you don’t accept the beliefs like the Law of Large Numbers and the Central Limit Theorem, you’ll have a hard time passing Stats), they are actually rejecting any attempt the Governor and Legislature may make to impose their own ideological indoctrination. This third point thus opens the door for instructors to make critical race theory central to discussions of history, law, and social justice and protects them from authoritarian attempts to infringe on their academic freedom.
South Dakota’s state universities will offer a curriculum that is based upon widely-held and accepted knowledge and thought. Our universities will respect academic freedom, and will expect faculty to exercise that freedom in a way that respects this expectation. As our students expand their understanding in a field of study, we encourage that students be exposed to a variety of viewpoints, ideas, and theories, so that they can be debated and critiqued. This could include discredited or controversial ideas, because understanding the weaknesses of failed ideas is as important as understanding the strengths of successful ones. Students must be prepared to identify the good and bad in new or controversial areas of thought [SDBOR, 2021.08.05].
Again invoking academic freedom, the Regents affirm the obvious, that university curriculum is based on “widely held and accepted knowledge and ideas.” If our young students’ beliefs are any indication, critical race theory is evidently widely held and (thankfully) informing their views about racism in America. But even if we skip that vague criterion of “widely held and accepted” as critical race theory’s automatic ticket to the curriculum, the Regents say the “controversy” over critical race theory qualifies it for discussion. Never mind that the “controversy” arises only because apartheidist Republicans have misappropriated a term they don’t understand to distract from their failures and oppressive designs. Students must understand controversial areas of thought; students thus must have opportunities to read and discuss critical race theory.
Governor Kristi Noem seems to think she got the Regents to ban critical race theory. The Regents planted words playing to her deliberate misconception of critical race theory at the top of their press release, and they had her most recent appointees say things that could be quickly read to support the Governor’s talking point. Yet they issued a formal statement that doesn’t mention critical race theory but is almost entirely consistent with the principles of critical race theory.
Seeing such apparent dissonance between what the Governor claims the Regents have done and what the Regents are actually saying, I can’t help but wonder if the Regents are trying to superficially placate the Governor’s fascist impulses while assuring South Dakotans who actually read that our universities will defend academic freedom and honest, non-partisan education, including, where appropriate, the valid and useful framework of critical race theory.