HELENA — Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen Thursday declared that some elements of “anti-racism” curriculum in school violates federal law and the state constitution and should not be taught in Montana schools.
The 25-page attorney general’s opinion, issued just two weeks after state Republican state Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen requested it, also referenced “Critical Race Theory,” saying components of it illegally discriminate based on race.
Critical Race Theory, which teaches that racism can be embedded in legal systems and government policies, has been around for 40 years.
Knudsen said the programs, while supposedly teaching students about the impacts of racism, can actually engage in racism themselves, by forcing students to “admit privilege” because of their race or by “race scapegoating,” which is assigning fault to members of a race, for oppressive actions against members of another race.
“Committing racial discrimination in the name of ending racial discrimination is both illogical and illegal,” he said in a statement. “It goes against the exceptional principles on which our nation was founded and has no place in our state.”
An attorney general’s opinion in Montana has the force of law, unless it’s overridden in court or by the Legislature.
Knudsen, also a Republican, said his office “stands ready” to help school officials, students, parents or others who my file complaints that they’re being subjected to “unlawful, race-based discrimination.”
Arntzen acknowledged Thursday that she’s unaware of Critical Race Theory or anti-racism programming being taught specifically anywhere in Montana, and said her request and the opinion are meant to prevent any unlawful actions.
“The pathway toward awareness begins with this opinion,” she told MTN News in an interview. “Parents that are concerned, they can talk to their schools.”
Amanda Curtis, president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, the union representing many public-school teachers in the state, said Thursday the actions of Arntzen and Knudsen are merely a way to politicize school curriculum.
“Shame on them for putting their own political careers ahead of Montana schools, students and families,” she said in a statement. “What Montana really needs is a superintendent focused on helping public schools plan for next school year.”
Republican legislatures and elected officials across the country have been attacking Critical Race Theory and the use in some schools of the 1619 Project, a New York Times Magazine piece and teaching plan from 2019 that examined the legacy of slavery in America and the historical contributions of Black Americans.
Last year, then-President Trump threatened to penalize schools that used curriculum based on the project.
On May 12, Arntzen requested an opinion on the subject from Knudsen, citing a proposed rule from the Biden administration’s Education Department for grants to teach history and civics. The Biden administration proposal said it would give priority to grants that “incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse perspectives.”
The proposed rule makes some reference to “anti-racist practices,” but does not mention Critical Race Theory.
In her request, Arntzen said she had “serious concerns” about the effect of such programs on students in Montana.
She told MTN News Thursday that she made the request in part because of concerns raised by parents and educators, and in order to ensure that when race-related elements of U.S. history are taught, students get both sides of the story.
History curriculum can still teach about racial segregation, suppression of Black voting rights in the South or mistreatment of Native Americans in America, but it should not focus only on the negative or ignore how those problems have been addressed, she said.
“In some of these conflicted moments, are there moments to be very prideful of, and understand, so instead of talking about conflict, we discuss the solutions that came from that, that makes Montana proud in the future, as well as making our nations’ history, something to be proud of,” she said.
Knudsen also told MTN News that his opinion does not say that Critical Race Theory or elements of race in history can’t be taught. It only forbids the use of discrimination or segregation within that teaching, he said.
“A lot of the components of Critical Race Theory, when you dig into it, is forced speech: `You will segregate yourself over into this area, you will segregate yourself and you will apologize or say these certain things,’ and that is clearly compelled speech that is prohibited by the First Amendment,” he said in an interview Thursday.
“One of the main tenets (of Critical Race Theory) is that the only way to make up for past discrimination, is to engage in future discrimination,” he continued. “That’s just antithetical to the American model …
“The idea here is to be a color-blind, equal society. … That’s really what we’re driving at here.”
However, Knudsen’s opinion said that anti-racism and Critical Race Theory demand “complete and total acceptance of a specific world view” that excludes people who “deny or question the extent to which white supremacy continues to shape our institutions.”
The opinion goes into great detail, citing examples from around the country, to criticize elements of anti-racist programs that focus on “whiteness” or the framing of Whites as racist.
It then outlines what Knudsen considers illegal practices in schools, centered around race: Using race when administering academic programs, racial stereotyping, acceptance of racial stereotyping as part of any grading criteria, being force to admit “privilege,” or engaging in any “race scapegoating.”
He also said any school that tells anyone they should “feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race almost certainly creates a racially hostile environment.”
“Schools may not attempt to purge the idea of `whiteness’ (or any other race) from schools,” he wrote. “Any curricula or activity that pressures members of a certain race to repudiate or `recover from’ their race is illegal as well.”