by PEG Contributor, Leslie Kamil, OTR/L, MS, JD
What is Critical Race Theory?
Critical race theory (CRT), developed in the 1970’s and 1980’s, is one of many frameworks used primarily in higher education to examine race and racism. It is based on the concepts of systemic and institutional racism and “challenges the conventional thinking about race-based discrimination, which for decades assumed that discrimination on the basis of race could be solved by expanding constitutional rights and then allowing individuals who were discriminated against to seek legal remedies.”
Many Americans, especially white people, believe racism is the product of intentionally bad and biased individuals, but critical race theory alleges that racism is systemic and is inherent in much of the American way of life from health care to housing, economics to education, clean water to the criminal justice system and more. It is argued that those systems have been “constructed and protected over generations in ways that give white people advantages – sometimes in ways that are not obvious or deliberately insidious but nonetheless result in compounding disadvantages for Black people and other racial and ethnic minorities.”
Why is this in the news now?
“The term critical race theory became more mainstream about “two years ago after The New York Times published the 1619 Project, a compilation of essays and commentaries that “brought the idea of critical race theory out of academia” and challenged “its readers to center the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans in the country’s national narrative.”
Months after the publication of the 1619 Project, Trump convened the “1776 Commission” to counter the narrative and develop a “patriotic” curriculum that schools can use to teach U.S. history. Trump signed an executive order forbidding federal contractors from conducting racial sensitivity trainings that promote “divisive concepts” such as the idea that “the United States is fundamentally racist.” That order was later repealed by President Joe Biden, but the same language shows up in the bill restricting discussions of race in schools across the county.
There are various other theories that believe that the bills that are now sweeping the nation come amidst “a racial reckoning in the U.S. that began over a year ago with the death of George Floyd” and the Black Lives Matter movement. Critics of the CRT accuse conservative groups of pushing the bills to boost its base before the 2022 midterm elections and change the subject from the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Proponents of the bills believe that history should not teach hate, divide and blame children for acts committed by ancestors and label the United States as a racist society.
Conservative groups complain that anti-racism efforts in schools have gone beyond rooting out acts of hatred or discrimination by suggesting that racism in the United States is systemic and has been since the nation’s founding. They believe that this is an attack on individuals who are white.
Supporters of CRT assert that “the attack is not on individuals… It’s about systems that have historically and persistently oppressed communities of color and how we need to dismantle those.”
Legislation that limits discussions of how race and racism shape American history have been signed into law by Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, Louisiana Idaho, Iowa, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas. Similar bills are moving through various state legislatures including one in Michigan introduced May 20. Each bill would ban “teachers from teaching that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual, by virtue of the individual’s race or sex, is inherently privileged, racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or subconsciously,” that “a meritocracy is inherently racist or sexist, or designed by a particular race or sex to oppress members of another race or sex” and that “this state or the United States is fundamentally or irredeemably racist or sexist.”
Critical race theorists, analysts and educators say that CRT does not attack individual students for their privileges, but rather, it makes them aware of how different systems in the U.S. discriminate against others.
The Michigan bill seeks to ban “anti-American and racist theories, reading guides, lesson plans, activities, guided discussions, and other resources that promote that the United States is a fundamentally racist nation, that the United States Constitution is a fundamentally racist document, and that certain races are fundamentally oppressive or oppressed.”
The bill also bans discussions around the following ideas, which the Republican bill cites as “anti-American” and “racist”: Read The Bridge Michigan article for the specifics of other discussions that are banned.
If Michigan districts teach any of the banned material, the district would lose 5 percent of their state funding. The legislation does not specify who would determine whether a teacher or school district had violated the ban.
The bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Education and Career Readiness. No date has been set for a hearing.
What do educators say?
Banning the teaching of CRT is not a healthy or constructive way to solve the race issues in the United States. In fact, limiting or forbidding discussion makes it seem as if it is bad to talk about. Justin A. Coles, an assistant professor at Fordham University Graduate School of Education, believes this approach “only strengthens and perpetuates systemic racism.”
The National Education Association (NEA) has accepted that CRT is not merely confined to academia but is in fact also being taught in K-12 schools. And the NEA thinks this is a good thing that should be defended. In fact, at its yearly annual meeting, the NEA adopted New Business Item 39, which essentially calls for the organization to defend the teaching of critical race theory.*
Some educators believe that “Students deserve an honest understanding of our history and its episodes of both greatness and shame if we hope to learn from our past,” In the K-12 classroom, CRT can be an approach to help students understand how racism has endured past the civil rights era through systems, laws, and policies—and how those same systems, laws, and policies can perpetuate racial inequality but can be transformed. CRT helps us recognize that even policies not explicitly predicated on race are not objective—they can actively function to reproduce racial inequality.
Janel George, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, affirms in her article, Critical Race Theory Isn’t a Curriculum. It’s a Practice in EdWeek, that it is important to recognize how this framework helps educators examine historic and contemporary racial inequality and to equip students with the tools to help eradicate it.
Critics of the bills
Dorinda Carter Andrews, chairperson for the Department of Teacher Education and professor of race, culture and equity at Michigan State University said she believes this bill and others across the country are intended to “ban any discussion of racism that deviates from the narrative the way that the American historical narrative has been told in schools.” If the bill were to become law, she said, it will make teachers hesitant to have classroom discussions around racism.