Why have so many people been up in arms about Critical Race Theory (CRT) over the past few months? And why are so many people attacking Critical Race Theory (or what is often called CRT for shorthand) and saying that it’s being taught in schools? These and other questions speak to the grave misinformation out there about CRT. In today’s blog, I will discuss 3 Reasons Why Attacking Critical Race Theory in Education is Misguided. To be clear, when you understand history, it is clear that this attack on CRT is not only misguided but actually very predictable.
Caught in a Backlash of white Supremacy Ignorance
Where did all of this attention for CRT come from?
To be honest, this attack is really not about Critical Race Theory. Well, at least on one level. You may be thinking:
Let me explain.
Unfortunately, CRT got caught in a larger backlash against racial justice movements that entered the mainstream during the summer of 2020, especially racial justice for Black people. Backlashes are one of the oldest tricks in the colonial, white supremacy playbook. Every time any perceived advancement for Black people takes place, it results in repressive efforts to maintain the racial status quo. This moment is not any different. Now the fight against CRT has shown up in state legislatures to ban its supposed use in classrooms. Last I checked, twenty-one states had passed or introduced legislation to ban Critical Race Theory in education settings.
However, what some state policymakers are describing CRT to be is absolutely wrong. It’s very clear that most people making policies against Critical Race Theory have no clue about what CRT actually is.
Today, CRT has seemingly become the catch-all phrase for everything related to diversity, inclusion, equity, anti-racism, and justice. I’ve even heard people say that CRT is the new Marxism. Others have suggested that CRT is racist, anti-white, and teaches Black children that they are less than. For crying out loud. This. Is. Not. True. When I hear such foolishness and inaccuracies, I do this. I shake my head, walk away, and realize that these people have not read one sentence of CRT.
What is Critical Race Theory?
To be clear, I do not consider myself to be an expert in CRT. To me, experts are those who have been studying and applying CRT in their work for many decades. However, I have been reading about CRT for years and believe that I’m much more familiar with it than most state policymakers who are introducing bills to ban it.
Many scholars suggest that CRT first emerged in the late 1970s with the writings of Derrick Bell and other legal scholars. However, on July 8, 1989 a group of 24 legal scholars met at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for the first Critical Race Theory Workshop. Kimberlé Crenshaw, a highly esteemed legal scholar, spearheaded and organized the group along with Stephanie Phillips and Neil Gotanda.
According to Crenshaw, they invited people to the first workshop “who were interested in defining and elaborating on the lived reality of race, and who were open to the aspiration of developing theory” (p. 1360). For a more detailed history of Critical Race Theory, I’d encourage you to read some of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s reflective work on CRT at its 10 and 20 year anniversaries and any of Derrick Bell’s work.
How I understand CRT
However, so that we’re on the same page, I’ll briefly explain how I understand Critical Race Theory. CRT is a way of understanding and explaining why and how racial inequality endures, especially for Black people, despite efforts such as Reconstruction, Brown v. Board of Education, and the Civil Rights Movement.
In doing so, it centers the lived experiences of racially minoritized people as valid, something that traditional research often disregards as non-objective. In its original understanding, CRT was used to understand how the law contributed to the racial status of Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx People.
CRT is important because it helps to expand the understanding about racism beyond individuals and into how it is endemically structured into society and institutions. In other words, CRT teaches us that racism is not a deviation from American society but is so permanently fixed that it seems normal. This is also the case for schools.
Critical race theory in Education
In 1995, two highly esteemed education scholars, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings and Dr. Bill Tate introduced Critical Race Theory into education. According to their foundational 1995 article, they were applying CRT (specifically the intersections of race and property) to education as an analytic tool for understanding school inequity. To be clear, the entrance of CRT into education was and continues to be met with resistance.
Just like in today’s environment, people still think that CRT has no place in research. In situating the importance of CRT in education research, Dr. Ladson-Billings published an article in 1998 titled “What is critical race theory and what is it doing in a nice field like education?” To learn more about Critical Race Theory in education, I’d suggest starting with this previously mentioned article and the Ladson-Billings and Tate article. But, here’s three reasons why attacking CRT is misguided.
#1 Attack Racism Instead of Critical Race Theory
If the policymakers who are trying to ban the supposed use of CRT were serious about helping children, then they would focus on dismantling racism in schools, not a theory that explains racism. Attacking CRT and not racism in schools is truly a distraction. Those who want to maintain the racial status quo use it as a strategy. For those who continue to attack CRT, here’s an idea.
Instead of attacking CRT in schools, how about focusing on dismantling the school to prison nexus, the pushout of Black girls from school, the over-representation of Black children in special education, whitewashed curriculum in schools, and the everyday micro and macro racial aggressions that Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latinx children experience in schools. Another important area that would be fruitful to focus on is working to transform the enduring psychological, material, and physical violence that Black youth experience in schools because of racism and anti-blackness.
#2 Distractions Lead to Detours
To be clear, critical race theory is not being taught in PreK-12 classrooms. I personally did not learn about CRT until I was in a doctoral program. While CRT gave me language to understand my lived experiences, I never had a class from PreK to my master’s degree that taught about CRT. Some people will say CRT is being taught to teachers in schools because they may have to attend anti-racism training. Well, let me clear that up. Anti-racism and equity training are not Critical Race Theory. So, you can’t ban something that is not there. Trying to ban something that is not there is called an illusion (or what academics call Dog Whistle Politics).
Illusions are powerful. As an aspiring magician (yes, I do magic), illusions are important to tricking and deceiving people for two key reasons. One, an illusion can make someone think something is there when it is actually not. Second, an illusion is designed to take your attention away from what really matters to focus on something that does not matter. And once these two things have been accomplished, voila, the trick and deception is complete.
Illusions and distractions to deceive people is what these so-called anti-CRT bills are doing. However, illusions and distractions have an interesting relationship with backlashes when it comes to maintaining the racial status quo. That is, embedded within backlashes are distractions and illusions that are created to lead to detours. This means that despite attempts to silence districts and schools, now more than ever, we need to stay focused on our commitments to racial justice in schools.
#3 Banning Critical Race Theory Won’t Stop Racism in Schools
Banning CRT won’t stop racism in schools. In fact, it helps to ensure that racism will continue in schools, “business-as-usual” style. But, as James Baldwin is so often quoted for saying, “Not everything that is faced can be changed but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Here’s the thing: racism won’t go away by denying its existence. It must be challenged and faced directly.
And yes, there is racism in schools today because there are no racially neutral spaces in schools. This is often a hard concept for some people to accept because racism has been so ingrained into school systems and people’s minds that it becomes difficult to detect (thanks CRT for teaching us this). However, to not talk about race at all, is to still be talking about race in schools. In other words, to not act against racism in schools is to act for racism in schools.
What do I mean?
Racism is the default setting of schools. This is because schools were structured as systems to advantage and center the ways of knowing, being, and doing of whiteness. For example, racism shapes all curriculum in schools. Every textbook includes either racialized beings (e.g., people’s physical bodies) and/or someone’s racialized knowledge that is viewed as truth and history. Besides, there are also lots of taken-for-granted ways to physical expression (e.g., how hair is worn), emotional expressions (e.g., what is deemed as the appropriate emotional responses to situations), and intellectual expression (e.g., how “smartness” is based on speed, memorization, and other constructs) that often normalizes Eurocentric expressions as correct. These are often subtle yet impactful and very present in schools today.
A Few Critical Questions
In closing, CRT is not being taught in schools and it is not racism. To the contrary, CRT is very useful in understanding how racism functions in society and specifically schools. Here are a few questions for you and your team to discuss so that you safeguard against attacking CRT instead of racism.
- How and in what ways might we be distracted from our racial justice work and on a detour? What are these detours and how might we get off of them?
- Have we clarified our commitments to racial justice? If so, what are they and have we discussed what it might cost to live up to these commitments when things get tough?
- How does racism show up everyday in our school? How might we anticipate it and advance racial justice instead?
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