The minority leader joined Republicans in protesting a proposal to promote teaching about systemic racism and the consequences of slavery, saying it would indoctrinate students with “a slanted story.”
WASHINGTON — Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, led Republican senators on Friday in protesting a proposed Biden administration rule promoting education programs that address systemic racism and the legacy of American slavery, calling the guidance “divisive nonsense.”
In a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Mr. McConnell, of Kentucky, and three dozen other Republicans singled out a reference in the proposal to The New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project, which was included as an example of a growing emphasis on teaching “the consequences of slavery, and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society.”
“Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense. Voters did not vote for it,” the senators wrote. “Americans never decided our children should be taught that our country is inherently evil.”
It was the latest bid by Republicans to stoke outrage within their conservative base about President Biden’s agenda, which party leaders are increasingly portraying as a radical overreach into every corner of American life.
Mr. McConnell’s lead role in it, reported earlier by Politico, came the day after former President Donald J. Trump — who specializes in using matters of race to inflame his supporters — had attacked the Kentucky Republican publicly, saying in an interview that he had done a poor job and should be replaced as the party leader.
Mr. Trump has directed his ire at Mr. McConnell since the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, when Mr. McConnell privately backed impeaching Mr. Trump, then voted to acquit him even as he delivered a damning condemnation of the former president. Mr. Trump recently told hundreds of Republican donors at a party confab that Mr. McConnell was “dumb” and used a profane phrase to disparage him.
With Mr. Biden pushing a number of popular domestic programs, Republicans have increasingly turned to litigating cultural issues to attack him and his party, accusing them of advancing a divisive agenda focused on political correctness, a message they believe will help them regain majorities in both the House and the Senate in 2022.
In his official party rebuttal to Mr. Biden’s address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the lone Black Republican, upbraided Democrats, colleges and corporations for “doubling down” on the nation’s racial divisions “by pretending we haven’t made any progress at all.”
“Kids again are being taught that the color of their skin defines them, and if they look a certain way, they’re an oppressor,” Mr. Scott said, adding later: “Hear me clearly: America is not a racist country.”
Similar efforts have played out in state legislatures across the country, from Idaho to Missouri to Rhode Island, as Republicans have sought to restrict how issues of race and racism are taught in public schools. They have taken aim specifically at critical race theory, an academic movement that posits that historical patterns of discrimination have created race-based disadvantages that persist today in modern systems of power.
On his first day in office, Mr. Biden signed an executive order asserting that the federal government should “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all,” especially people of color “who have been historically underserved, marginalized and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”
“Our country faces converging economic, health and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities, while a historic movement for justice has highlighted the unbearable human costs of systemic racism,” Mr. Biden wrote in the order.
The administration’s proposed rule protested by Mr. McConnell and others does not mandate any curriculum changes. Instead, it lays out priorities for federal competitions or grant programs to which schools could elect to apply for initiatives that “take into account systemic marginalization, biases, inequities and discriminatory policy and practice in American history.” In addition to citing the 1619 Project, the rule quotes the work of Ibram X. Kendi, the author of the book “How to Be an Antiracist.”
“It is critical that the teaching of American history and civics creates learning experiences that validate and reflect the diversity, identities, histories, contributions and experiences of all students,” it states.
In their letter, Mr. McConnell and the other Republicans denounced the focus.
“Our nation’s youth do not need activist indoctrination that fixates solely on past flaws and splits our nation into divided camps,” they wrote. “Taxpayer-supported programs should emphasize the shared civic virtues that bring us together, not push radical agendas that tear us apart.”
They also argued that the 1619 Project “has become infamous for putting ill-informed advocacy ahead of historical accuracy,” and that “citing this debunked advocacy confirms that your proposed priorities would not focus on critical thinking or accurate history, but on spoon-feeding students a slanted story.”
Jordan Cohen, a spokesman for The Times, defended the project as “landmark, groundbreaking journalism.”
“It deepened many readers’ understanding of the nation’s past and forced an important conversation about the lingering impact of slavery, and its centrality to America’s story,” Mr. Cohen said in a statement. “The resistance some have expressed to having this conversation is not new. Similar objections have arisen at various points in recent decades when scholars have attempted to broaden the way American history is taught.”
Mr. McConnell took up a similar theme earlier this month, when he suggested that corporations and sports leagues were being “intimidated by the left” into weighing in on issues like Georgia’s voting law that would only further partisan divisions.
“Republicans drink Coca-Cola, too,” he said, “and we fly.”