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Why this governor says to turn off cable news as critical race theory debate heats up

Gov. Spencer Cox addressed critical race theory at his monthly news conference at the PBS Utah studios in Salt Lake City on Thursday,
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at his monthly news conference at the PBS Utah studios on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Thursday, May 20, 2021.
Trent Nelson

Gov. Spencer Cox on Thursday applauded the Legislature for approving a resolution encouraging the Utah State Board of Education to ban what lawmakers consider “harmful” critical race theory concepts.

“They actually did what I asked them to do,” Cox said during his monthly news conference on PBS Utah in Salt Lake City, pointing to his letter that explained why he’d decided to leave legislation for both critical race theory and an effort to make Utah a Second Amendment sanctuary off the special session agenda: to give the hot-button issues more “time, thought, dialogue and input” before passing a bill.

“This is team Utah. We bring people together. We work through these hard issues,” Cox said. “We listen to all the voices and then we try to make an appropriate and rational and measured decision.”

“And if you actually read the resolutions,” Cox said, “that’s exactly what they did.”

While not encouraging an outright ban of the theory, the resolutions approved by lawmakers on Wednesday — after the House and Senate held their own “extraordinary session” separate from the special session called by Cox — urge the State School Board to ensure certain concepts aren’t taught in Utah schools, including that “one race is inherently superior or inferior to another race,” that “an individual should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment because of the individual’s race,” or that “an individual’s moral character is determined by the individual’s race.”

The resolutions stated “some concepts contained in critical race theory degrade important societal values and, if introduced in the classrooms, would harm students’ learning in the public education system.”

Critical race theory, according to the American Bar Association, recognizes “that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant.” The theory also acknowledges “that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicates racial inequality. This dismisses the idea that racist incidents are aberrations but instead are manifestations of structural and systemic racism.”

Nationwide — as the 1619 Project has gained interest from President Joe Biden’s administration — Republicans have taken a growing interest in banning critical race theory from schools.

Even though critical race theory has become a political lightning rod for Republicans, Cox again urged less partisanship and polarization from Utahns, saying he’s purged cable news out of his media diet.

“We would all be better off if people would stop watching cable news, whether it’s CNN or Fox News or MSNBC,” Cox said. “Pick whatever one you’re addicted to. I’m eight years sober, and it’s been one of the best things that I’ve ever done. I’d just encourage people to turn that off and talk to real people about the issues, not listening to the talking heads who make their money by making you outraged. It’s unhealthy personally and it’s certainly unhealthy for our democratic republic.”

Asked why he appears on cable news shows, Cox said he’s “tried to be a voice of reason in a sea of anger and contempt.”

“If we’re not willing to go to those places and try to convince people that there’s a better way, then we’re lost,” he said.

Cox said the problem with critical race theory is “no one really knows” what it is, so how it’s defined in Utah curriculum is what really matters. He said there’s also no evidence of whether it’s actually being taught in Utah schools, so he’s looking to State School Board leaders to investigate and determine how to best address the issue.

“But also just as importantly (we need to make) sure we’re not avoiding the hard conversations about our history,” Cox added. We live in the greatest nation in the history of the world, and we have so much to be proud of and we have to teach those things. We’ve also made some very serious mistakes in our past. We shouldn’t shy away from those things. Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it, and we need to make sure that our school kids, that they learn the ugly parts of our history as well. That’s what makes us stronger.”

Cox said he doesn’t think critical race theory should be taught in K-12 schools, calling “certain portions” of the theory “problematic.”

“I have no problem with learning about other theories, but teaching those things as truth I think can be problematic,” he said. “So it’s one of those things where it’s how you define it that matters.”

While it doesn’t belong in children’s schools, Cox said it may have a place in Utah’s higher education system.

“I worry when we exclude any type of idea or theory out there. That’s what’s remarkable about our institutions of higher education is the ability to debate these things and to become critical thinkers and to decide what you believe in and how you represent that to the world,” he said.