Dan Patrick’s Critical Erasure

The lieutenant governor continues his crusade against those who challenge the racist mythologies of Texas.

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Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is heartsick and afraid. He’s scared for his six grandchildren, who may grow up in a country that rejects its greatness in exchange for wokeness and anti-whiteness. Critical race theory and the New York Times’ 1619 Project “not only hurts my heart,” Patrick has said, but also “scares the hell out of me.” 

In a call this March with Texans for Lawsuit Reform, the 71-year-old politician announced that “critical race theory and 1619, and all that BS is nonsense and will destroy our nation,” vowing to “not let this seep into Texas.” 

Patrick doesn’t like change. His sense of identity and his political power—along with that of the Texas GOP—are bound up with mainstream mythologies of the United States and Texas. In Patrick’s world, people and institutions challenging those narratives seek to destroy that power.

Critical race theory—a field of legal and academic scholarship that explores the effects of systemic racism—is just the latest dog whistle for racial-grievance politics. Conservative activist Chris Rufo, who orchestrated this crusade to crush critical race theory, explained to the New Yorker in June that the GOP needed new language for “these issues.” The term “political correctness,” he said, was outdated and insufficient, while “cancel culture” was too vague and “woke” too broad. Enter critical race theory, what Rufo called “the perfect villain.”

Conservatives in Texas were quick to use the new vocabulary. Moral panic spread as indignant parents showed up at school board meetings across Texas accusing administrators and teachers of indoctrinating their kids with critical race theory. After Carroll ISD in the Metroplex suburb of Southlake enacted a plan to address racial and cultural intolerance, an opposition slate of school board and city council candidates swept into office this spring. In nearby Grapevine-Colleyville ISD, a Black high school principal was—without explanation—placed on administrative leave this fall after parents accused him of peddling critical race theory. In Leander ISD, outside Austin, the district was forced to pull several books that dealt with race and sexuality from its recommended reading lists after some parents lashed out. 

The new, amorphous villain fit seamlessly into the broader conservative culture wars of Texas, especially with many of its longest, most critical battles happening in the classroom. With a decades-long, right-wing fight to preserve a whitewashed, inaccurate history of America and Texas in textbooks and curriculum standards, the language of critical race theory provided a new theater for combat, with Patrick leading the charge. 

Since the beginning of this year, Texas Republicans have passed bills to limit how history, racism, and current events are taught in classrooms. While the term “critical race theory” didn’t appear in the text of the legislation, leaders heralded the laws as bans on critical race theory. House Democrats succeeded in adding amendments to the original bill passed in the regular session, including one requiring that children be taught that white supremacy is morally wrong. But Patrick fought back, successfully urging Governor Greg Abbott to revive the issue in the special session, then pushing through a more stringent version of the law without the amendments.

Under the law, teachers don’t have to talk to students about controversial current events or policy issues, and if they do, they must present them without any political bias—though the law doesn’t define what constitutes “controversial” or “bias.” Slavery and racism cannot be taught as a central part of American history, only a “deviation.”

With Texas’ public schools now free from the tyranny of critical race theory, Patrick has turned his attention to the Marxist strongholds of higher education. Colleges, he says, have become cocooned safe spaces that stifle debate and dissent. To combat these thought crimes, the lieutenant governor quietly inserted a $6 million initiative into this year’s state budget bill to launch a “limited government” think tank called the Liberty Institute at the University of Texas at Austin. Records obtained by the Texas Tribune reveal that Patrick worked with UT President Jay Hartzell and its Board of Regents to create an institute “dedicated to the study and teaching of individual liberty, limited government, private enterprise and free markets.” 

One proposal outlined the institute’s ambitions to “educate thousands of students … on the moral, ethical, philosophical and historical foundations of a free society.” It also included plans to create a civics course within the university’s program to provide college courses to more than 20,000 high schoolers. University officials say the institute is still a work in progress.

But of all the attacks on the greatness of Texas, nothing gets Patrick more worked up than the Alamo. Patrick first visited Texas in 1979 as a sportscaster covering a Spurs playoff series, he wrote in an op-ed last year. “Upon arrival, I immediately went to the Alamo. I have loved the heroic Alamo story since I was a kid wearing a Davy Crockett coonskin hat. I fell in love with Texas on that visit, and a few months later, I was hired by a Houston TV station. I could never have imagined one day I would be lieutenant governor and in the middle of a fight to save the history of the Alamo.”

Patrick has been at the forefront of a conservative campaign to stop a “reimagining” of the historic site by the Texas Land Commission. And in 2018, after a curriculum committee recommended that the State Board of Education remove the word “heroic” from its seventh-grade curriculum on the battle at the Alamo, Patrick tweeted that it was “time to draw a line in the sand on political correctness in our schools.” 

This summer, when a trio of Texas writers published a book, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, that challenged the Alamo’s innumerable legends, Patrick lashed out with the full force of the state behind him. When the Bullock State History Museum announced a July event for the book, Patrick’s office demanded the function be canceled, calling the book a “fact-free rewriting” of Texas history. He then asked the University of Texas to host a panel of experts—all adherents to Alamo traditionalism—to grill the authors over the historical rigor of the book. The authors declined to participate in Patrick’s “kangaroo court.”

Of course, Patrick’s own line in the sand has never been all that straight. Perhaps ironically, that same week, the lieutenant governor pushed legislation that would forbid censorship by social media platforms.