Critical race theory is an academic movement that has recently gained widespread attention because of its framing by some Republicans and conservative groups in restricting the teaching of America’s past and present. Though, the principles of critical race theory are not new. It was first explored in academia by the late professor Derrick Bell at Harvard University in the 1980s as a way of understanding the correlation between race and the United States legal system. It later evolved in response to critical legal studies. Over time, the movement grew among legal scholars, mostly of color, at law schools across the country. Kimberlé Crenshaw is a pioneering scholar and law professor at the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law whose work has been foundational in critical race theory. During an interview with Jason Carroll, a CNN national correspondent, she explained it in simple terms. 

“Critical race theory just says ‘let’s pay attention to what has happened in this country and how what has happened in the country is continuing to create differential outcomes so we can become that country that we say we are.’ So critical race theory is not anti-patriotic. In fact, it is more patriotic than those who are opposed to it because we believe in the 13th, and the 14th and the 15th amendments. We believe in the promises of equality, and we know we can’t get there if we can’t confront and talk honestly about inequality.”

Opponents of critical race theory are using it as a weapon, waging war against its tenets. K-12 classrooms across the nation are the unfortunate battlegrounds. One of the early instigators for banning critical race theory was former President Donald Trump. During his speech at the White House Conference on American History in September 2020 he said, “Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country.” He continued: “Students in our universities are inundated with critical race theory. This is a Marxist doctrine holding that America is a wicked and racist nation, that even young children are complicit in oppression and that our entire society must be radically transformed. Critical race theory is being forced into our children’s schools, it’s being imposed into workplace trainings and it’s being deployed to rip apart friends, neighbors and families.”

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That same month, Trump signed an executive order restricting diversity training by government agencies, which was later rescinded by President Joe Biden. On the school front, GOP-led states began to roll out bills restricting how educators can discuss racism. In an Education Week analysis, 26 states have introduced bills on banning teachings rooted in critical race theory. Ten states, including Georgia, Rhode Island, Louisiana, Iowa, Missouri, West Virginia and New Hampshire, have enacted bans through legislation or other avenues. These efforts are misguided, and largely unfounded and unwarranted. While critical race theory is a worthy approach to examining the systems that create and sustain inequality and systemic racism, it is not, at its core, being taught in K-12 schools. NBC News shared a survey conducted by the Association of American Educators that “suggests that the panicked dialogue on critical race theory made by lawmakers and the media does not reflect the reality of American classrooms.” Saida Grundy, assistant professor of sociology and African American studies at Boston University and author of the upcoming book, Respectable: Politics and Paradox in the Making of the Morehouse Man shared the sentiments evidenced in the survey. 

“Actual critical race theory, in the way that Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshaw are teaching law students is not happening in anyone’s K-12 school,” she said. “But what we are really talking about is a way of talking about U.S. history and a way of talking about U.S. social problems in which the center of that narrative is not a white-dominate narrative. They really just don’t want a demythologizing of America.” 

Detroit educator Dr. Curtis Lewis is known for his dedication to building culturally relevant learning communities for students of color. He established the Black Male Educators Alliance of Michigan to dismantle the institutional impediments to diversity with the educational profession and to improve the educational experiences of urban youth. Lewis says that this recent opposition to critical race theory is an example of people intentionally using scare tactics to demonize and deepen the racial divide, which couldn’t be further from the truth. “Teaching critical race theory in K-12 schools has never been the intention in the first place,” says Lewis. “Teaching students the accurate history of this country – its good, bad, and ugly, and engaging school leaders, teachers and students in culturally responsive and restorative practices that engage our students in deeper learning – leading to independent learners is what this country needs if we plan to be competitive at the global level.”

Lewis asserts that politicians have inappropriately hijacked critical race theory and its purpose and are turning it into a cultural war, not because they really care what schools teach but because they are focused on feeding into the souls of misinformed citizens that would rather keep the nation racially divided. An important fact about critical race theory, he notes, is that it “doesn’t teach folks to hate anyone, but instead understand the systems and policies that have marginalized, ostracized and excluded those from fully participating or reaping the full benefits of the intended policy or system.” He says, “Exposure to these things does not create hate. Instead it creates informed, empathetic folks who seek to dismantle those systems and policies that benefit a few, and create those systems and policies that benefit everyone.”

Grundy and Lewis agree that critical race theory is not what GOP leaders and the conservative groups are claiming it to be – it’s not a smokescreen to divisiveness. The true intent lies in the premise of providing an education that relays real and whole truths about our nation’s history, not one that has been romanticized by hiding facts. Grundy says, “Any inch of yardage gained by coming to a more accurate depiction of America’s founding and its 250 years of slavery is a great, great threat to (opponents) because the Neo-confederacy – which is the modern-day Republican party – have always seen schools, education as a battle ground for its propaganda.”

The 1619 Project, researched and curated by scholar Nikole Hannah-Jones for The New York Times Magazine in 2019, is an example of a full history lesson centered around the nation’s founding. It is a journalistic initiative aimed at reframing the country’s history by sharing stories of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans. She opens the initiative with an essay entitled, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True.”

In “Why We Published The 1619 Project,” Jake Silverstein, editor-in-chief of The New York Times Magazine, writes, “There is gruesome material in these stories, material that readers will find disturbing. That is, unfortunately, as it must be. American history cannot be told truthfully without a clear vision of how inhumane and immoral the treatment of Black Americans has been. By acknowledging this shameful history, by trying hard to understand its powerful influence on the present, perhaps we can prepare ourselves for a more just future.” 

The 1619 Project has received stark criticism by the drivers behind controlling the lessons taught in K-12 education. Donald Trump, at the White House Conference, said, “The left has warped, distorted and defiled the American story with deceptions, falsehoods and lies. There is no better example than the New York Times’ totally discredited 1619 Project. This project rewrites American history to teach our children that we were founded on
the principle of oppression, not freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth. America’s founding set in motion the unstoppable chain of events that abolished slavery, secured civil rights, defeated communism and fascism, and built the most fair, equal and prosperous nation in human history.”

In June, Gov. Ron DeSantis participated in the Florida Board of Education meeting where he said, “We have to do history that is factual, and if you look at the things that have grown out of critical race theory, it is much more about trying to craft narratives about history that are not grounded in facts.” He used The 1619 Project as an example of that narrative. That day, the Board of Education voted unanimously to prohibit the teaching of critical race theory and The 1619 Project. 

Also in June, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation making Juneteenth a national holiday.  In it, he refers to June 19, now known as Juneteenth Day of Observance as “a day in which we remember the moral stain and terrible toll of slavery on our country – what I’ve long called America’s original sin.” With the divisiveness about what and how children are taught, how do we teach them about Juneteenth? How do we create space for Black and non-Black children to understand the nation’s past grievances and have empathy for the impact the continued legacy of systemic racism, disenfranchisement and marginalization – often intentional by way of policy and disinvestment – has on large communities of people? In the world of diversity, equity and inclusion, the backbone of work advancing is the ability to understand one another, to see one another.  

Ultimately, it is our students who stand to lose the most; they are the true casualties in this controversy. They are our future leaders who will use the information they have learned in school to later make decisions that will affect people for generations to come. Lewis understands this in his work at the Black Male Educators Alliance of Michigan. He stresses that the work is too important. “We will not allow the current rhetoric to deter us from the work that we do,” he says. “We will spend time doing the work, liberating our schools and learners so that we can truly practice what it means to have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Americans.” 

KAYE BYRD IS A FREELANCE WRITER
FOCUSED ON SOCIAL ISSUES