Yesterday, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen released an Attorney General’s Opinion (AGO) asserting that teaching critical race theory or principles of anti-racism in Montana public schools violates federal and state law. This inflammatory AGO does not and cannot change the fact that teaching Montana students about the essential role that racism has played in creating and perpetuating systemic inequality in our country is not only vitally important but legally permissible.
First, Attorney General Knudsen goes far beyond the question raised by Montana Superintendent Elsie Arntzen to address entities he has no power to address in this opinion, including higher education institutions, other governmental agencies, and non-public-school employers. Second, with respect to public schools, the AGO does not and cannot change federal law. Existing anti-discrimination laws protect students from the harms of actual racial discrimination. In using Equal Protection claims and other false legal assertions, Attorney General Knudsen perverts landmark civil rights laws and Supreme Court decisions that were specifically intended to mitigate and address systemic racism - not perpetuate it. Public schools teaching a robust and honest history of race in this country do not violate federal or state law. It is perfectly legal - indeed it is vitally important - to teach our public school students the honest history of race relations, discrimination, and how racial animosity shaped many of America’s institutions and structures. Nothing in Knudsen’s opinion changes that. It is imperative that we do not allow the AGO’s wide-ranging, legally misleading assertions to chill thoughtful and important discussions of race in schools.
The children of Montana have a right to learn history in an inclusive and honest way that encourages a critical examination of the past. Teachers must discuss race in the classroom in order to provide Montana’s children with an education that allows them to confront the real, complicated, and harrowing racial history of this country. That includes an examination of the legacy of racial discrimination, both legal and social, that shaped many fundamental institutions in this country and still have effects today. Montana’s students are also entitled to an inclusive education that incorporates a truthful representation and reflection of all experiences, including those of Black and Brown people. In her blog post for the Montana Family Foundation decrying critical race theory and anti-racist teaching, Superintendent Arntzen herself noted the importance of teaching a racially and culturally diverse, representative history. Arntzen purported to “strongly agree that Montanans should celebrate our diverse heritage, and proudly embrace our state’s unique Constitution, which commits to the continued education and preservation of Indigenous culture.” We agree with Superintendent Arntzen’s acknowledgment of the importance of teaching diverse stories. We also agree with Arntzen that “we need [children] to comprehend when our country has fallen short of its lofty goals, and . . . [to] learn from our history [so] that the same mistakes are not repeated.” Banning all examinations of race in the classroom will thwart these important educational values.
Giving our kids a critical lens with which to view history and current events only serves to build a stronger, more united citizenry. As the events of the last year brought a heightened awareness to the continued realities of systemic racism, we must empower our children with critical thinking skills so that they can continue to do the work of dismantling the unfair, oppressive, and continuing legacies of racial discrimination in this country. There is nothing in either federal or state law that prevents schools from engaging in this crucial work.