It is a movement generated by feelings—what the late Lauren Berlant described in 2016 as the desire to feel “freedom from shame.” (“Civil rights and feminism aren’t just about the law after all, they are about manners, and emotions too: Those ‘interest groups’ get right in there and reject what feels like people’s spontaneous, ingrained responses,” they wrote.) What else explains why so much of the language in these laws speaks of the need to protect—again, largely white—students from, as one puts it, “discomfort, guilt, anguish”? What else explains a proposed University of Nebraska resolution against so-called critical race theory, championed by the state’s Republican Governor Pete Ricketts, that states that “America is the best country in the world and anyone can achieve the American Dream here” and that “Critical Race Theory proponents,” on the other hand, “disparage American ideals”?
At the end of June, a group in Tennessee calling itself Moms for Liberty Williamson County filed the first formal complaint resulting from the passage of Tennessee’s law. In the complaint, they singled out four books in a curriculum targeted to second graders, including two books on the life of Ruby Bridges. These books violated the state’s new law with their “heavily biased agenda” that “makes children hate their country, each other, and/or themselves,” according to the complaint. The offending images in these books, the complaint made clear, depicted segregated drinking fountains, firemen turning their hoses on Black children, and white parents protesting racial integration—all indisputable facts from our recent past. But to Moms for Liberty, teaching this history was “indoctrination” and will “sow the seeds of racial strife, neo-racism, neo-segregation, and is an affront to the ideals of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.” (In a bit of a twist, one of the books they objected to was Martin Luther King Jr. and the March on Washington.)
The remedy these parents seek is censorship (the removal of the entire curriculum), increased precarity for teachers, and an environment of silence and erasure for marginalized students. To assuage their hurt feelings and outrage, what they’re calling for is the extension of the control they wield in private—in their homes and within their nuclear families and over their children—into the public sphere.