Welcome to Race on Campus. A new Idaho law stops short of barring instructors from teaching critical race theory, and Leslie Madsen, an associate professor of history at Boise State University, plans teach it in one of her spring courses. She broke down the nuances of the law in a Twitter thread telling students there was room in the course. Read my interview with her below.

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Leslie Madsen has spots open in her spring course on women and gender in the American West, at Boise State University.

Madsen, an associate professor of history and associate director of the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning, teaches the course every few years, and each time she adjusts the material. For the coming semester she plans to teach, among other things, the histories of mixed-race families in the West, the Zoot Suit Riots, and the internment of Japanese Americans. She’s working on getting activists to talk to the class. And she’s going to have students engage with critical race theory.

Critical race theory examines the relationship between race, racism, and the American legal system. For many conservative lawmakers, the discipline is a flashpoint, and they describe it as discriminatory. In Idaho a new state law takes a shot at critical race theory but stops short of forbidding it to be taught.

Many state lawmakers don’t understand what critical race theory teaches in an academic setting, Madsen told me recently. The law takes aim at what they think is the problem: when students return home from college and think differently or lean more liberal than their parents do. In part, she said, the law may be an attempt to curb that shock.

This month, Madsen tweeted, “Hey #BoiseState students — if you’re interested in women and gender in the U.S. West, you can sign up for my spring course, HIST 346: Women and Gender in the U.S. West. And yes, we will engage with *genuine* critical race theory. (Come at me, legislators. TRY ME.)”

Madsen said she had posted the comment for two reasons. In part, she said, her tweet was a response to sexist comments by Scott Yenor, a political-science professor at Boise State who told attendees at the National Conservatism Conference last month that the country should prime women to be mothers, not to have career ambitions.

“Because Yenor was making these really awful remarks about women and trying to circumscribe women’s experiences, I thought that I would invite students in to have that discussion about, What does this look like in the past, in the U.S. West?” Madsen said.

On a practical note, she said, there is space in the class to fill.

A Degree of Protection

Madsen’s decision to challenge lawmakers on social media was a calculated risk. These days, even posting about an academic discipline online can be dicey, but Madsen was confident that her university would protect her, as it had before.

In 2015, Madsen volunteered for Moms Demand Action, a group that advocates for policies to prevent gun violence. The national organization attributed a quote to her in a news release. The Idaho Second Amendment Alliance, which supports gun rights, saw the news release and tried to dox her, Madsen said. The group posted her picture on Facebook, and the ensuing comments were so threatening that she filed a report with the police.

Boise State supported her throughout the ordeal, even though she worked for Moms Demand Action on her own time, outside her academic duties. The campus’s public-safety director called her, and she was offered an escort to accompany her from her parking space to her classes, Madsen said.

The fact that she’s tenured, too, gave her a degree of protection against the backlash, she said. Still, she’s seen how the new law has had a chilling effect on other faculty members.

Understanding Critical Race Theory

Idaho’s critical-race-theory law states that public colleges and schools may not “compel students to personally affirm, adopt, or adhere to any of the following tenets,” including that any race or ethnicity is superior to another; that individuals are responsible for actions committed by other members of their race, sex, or ethnicity; and that people should be treated adversely because of their race, ethnicity, or sex.

However, the legislation does not say that instructors may not teach critical race theory. The office of Boise State’s provost published an FAQ document about the new law for faculty members that states, “Idaho Code 33-138 does not prohibit teaching students about any particular content, including critical race theory, so you may.”

The FAQ says instructors may teach it in the context of immigration policy, diversity, inequality, and the history of religious discrimination in the United States, among other topics.

The provost’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

In her Twitter thread and in our interview, Madsen said her course wouldn’t do anything prohibited by law. She never asks students to affirm or adopt what she’s teaching, and she tells students that she welcomes challenges to her perspective.

MadsenTweets

Given the details in the legislation, there seems to be a misunderstanding among state lawmakers about what critical race theory actually is, Madsen said.

She hopes her Twitter thread can help clarify the academic definition of critical race theory. The responses to it have mostly been positive or encouraging, she said.

Some critics tweeted at the university that Madsen was planning to break the law. Madsen said she’s not too worried. She’s already outlined exactly why that’s not the case.

Read Up

  • Matthew Hawn, a white teacher in Tennessee, taught high-school students about white privilege. He was fired. (The Washington Post)
  • State lawmakers in Texas, including Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, say they’re worried about children being exposed to critical race theory or racy material, and are asking school administrators to investigate the content of school libraries. (The New York Times)
  • In December there’s usually plenty of food on holiday tables. Here’s food for thought: Race and class affect how you eat and what you buy. (NPR)

This is the last newsletter of 2021. Where did the time go? We’ll be back in your inbox on January 4, 2022.

—Fernanda