Much of the outrage against Critical Race Theory being taught in schools across the United States is misguided.
Critical Race Theory (CRT) is a concept that asserts that historical patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other modern institutions, and that the legacies of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow still create an uneven playing field for Black people and other people of color.
The theory is supported by a ton of research and is mainly taught in higher educational institutions, law schools, etc. Rarely, if ever, is CRT actually taught in K-12 institutions. (White) Teachers in K-12 institutions have trouble teaching enslavement and doing so properly; I can say with confidence that CRT isn’t being taught in most schools. Few have the credentials of a Keziah Ridgeway. What many folks might be teaching that freaks a lot of folks out is a more accurate history of America and the impact of the racism in its history on today’s citizens.
As educators wrestle with whether to “teach” CRT or how to teach on systemic racism in the wake of laws enacted in their states to ban CRT from school curricula, they should shift their attention to the implications for teaching CRT to students to the implications of applying CRT to their mindset surrounding teaching and learning.
I suspect that if educators allowed CRT to frame their approach to the work of teaching and learning, they could create a space that honors students of color while carefully navigating the treacherous waters of boogiemonster politics as per white conservative Republicans.
CRT can help frame the educator’s approach to teaching and learning in a few areas: curriculum, instruction, and assessment.
Approaching curriculum and instruction, both generally and specific to a content area, from a CRT frame or lens helps to diagnose the problem with it; it’s race-neutral or colorblind so that whiteness is default perspective from the way content is mapped, planned, sourced, implemented, and taught.
Curriculum and instruction, more often than otherwise, is absent a critical critique and challenging of whiteness and white supremacy, that is the dominant or default cultural authority and power. For example, as a child when in school, I was taught that July 4th was a day of independence for all Americans, including Black people. However, that is not true. Our independence came by way of resistance and/or rebellion first, then by way of the bullet during the Civil War – only because the Union needed us to save itself. I doubt if my teacher had ever heard of the founding of Juneteenth or the history of Memorial Day.
Yet Black children today are still taught to believe that our independence is linked to July 4th, 1776; a day that launched the colonists’ efforts to maintain enslavement via bloodshed for fear of the British abolishing the practice as per the Somerset ruling.
Likewise, Black children are taught by teachers who teach from a race-neutral or colorblind lens out of textbooks written primarily by white authors, published by white book publishers who have a history of whitewashing the history they claim to accurately portray.
Meanwhile, evidence shows that children as young as infants are able to nonverbally categorize people by race and gender at six months of age, three- to five-year-olds not only categorize people by race, but express bias based on race.
Black teachers can support the challenging of whiteness by way of the curriculum and resources to teach the curriculum; hiring and retaining them should also be a paramount concern but I digress.
Approaching assessment from a CRT frame or lens causes us to critically survey assessment measures and models in such a way that we must both critique the extent of how assessments are used to uphold racists tropes of Black intellectual abilities as well as how bad curriculum along with the lack of instructional innovation, imagination, and accountability facilitates poor performance on those assessment measures.
Also, viewing assessment from a CRT frame or lens compels us to reconsider assessment – not to rid the learning process of assessment but rather redefining assessment as measuring the success of the practical application of a theory or concept. If that theory or concept is rooted in Black students thinking critically about their social and historical realities, we may find an anchor that roots content knowledge in ways that display what they can do.
Black teachers can support rooting content in Black students critically thinking about social and historical realities; hiring and retaining them should also be a paramount concern, but again I digress.
These are brief examples of how CRT can be positioned to frame our thinking of inequities and injustice in schools. However, a word of caution: CRT isn’t, nor should it be mistreated to be viewed as, the flavor of the month by educators like culturally competent teaching or multicultural education. In the hands of school personnel who erroneously view themselves as versed on the topic may misdiagnose and mistreat the areas I just mentioned.
That only hurts that Black students and families, as well as educational professionals, that school say they seek to support.
A real effort to use CRT as a frame for racial justice in our schools means (1) a fearless and unapologetic attack of racism in education, found both in individuals and in institutions, and (2) bold, targeted and transformative solutions that meet the moment.
It means being unpopular. It means dealing with ignorant parents and educators – literally. It means standing up to the pressure of smugly racist academics and politicians. It may even mean losing one’s position within their school or district office. But education isn’t about power or position. Education is about empowering and equipping.
As Baldwin so eloquently reminds us:
The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white… To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.
Being fearless yet strategic in our work is the only way that our society will change.