Critical race theory is causing controversy in K-12 classrooms. Here's what parents should know.

·10-min read
Critical Race Theory, which teaches how racism has shaped American history, is under fire for its role in the K-12 classroom. (Photo: Getty Images)
Critical Race Theory, which teaches how racism has shaped American history, is under fire for its role in K-12 classrooms. (Photo: Getty Images)

Critical race theory (CRT), a methodology that recognizes how systemic racism has shaped American history, is under fire from state leaders and parents for its role in the K-12 educational system. But experts say that misinformation about CRT is what's shaping resistance. Here's what parents should know about this important topic.    

CRT's history and tenets

The idea popped up in the 1970s with law scholars Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Mari Matsuda, Patricia Williams, Kimberlé Crenshaw and Richard Delgado as a way to reinvigorate the civil rights movement and address micro-aggressions (subtle forms of racism) experienced by Black people, according to the 2001 book Critical Race Theory: An Introduction by Delgato and Jean Stefancic, law professors at the University of Alabama. Although, notes the book, the theory later fueled breakout movements for Asian-American, Latinx and other groups.

"It started by asking hard questions like, 'Why aren't women of color tenured in law professor positions? Why doesn't the law respond to systematic racism?'" Kenneth Varner, an associate professor of literary education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas tells Yahoo Life. "It's an analytical discipline that looks deeper into data and context." 

Varner explains the tenets of critical race theory as follows:   

  • Racism has always existed. And it likely always will, therefore people should fight harder against it. 

  • People of color are experts in their own experiences and their stories should be told. Varner shares how this looks in the classroom, for example: "It's not that Native Americans and Pilgrims sat down to a wonderful dinner together, but rather, the Pilgrims raped, pillaged and stole, then realized they didn’t have the resources to be self-sustaining," he says. "CRT would combat these myths and reveal the absurdity of the dominant narrative."

  • Intersectionality matters. "Race, class and gender are important on their own, but the experience of, say, a Black lesbian of lower socio-economic status who identifies as atheist looks different than that of a Black Christian upper-class male," explains Varner.  

  • The law should analyze broader systems of race, class and gender. "The court system doesn't necessarily deal with structural or systemic issues so people have to prove individual instances [of discrimination]," he says. "One can't necessarily make a claim about general ways in which a system of racism disadvantages them — they have to show [proof specific to them]."  

  • White people benefit from racism, whether or not they are conscious of it. "It's recognizing that white people have power and privilege that others don't, and leveraging that for the right thing," says Varner. "We don't want people to be colorblind, but to pay attention to differences …not a white-washing of history."

Critical race does not assume that all white people are racist, underscores the #TruthBeTold campaign by the African-American Policy Forum, founded by Crenshaw. Instead, it provides "frameworks and tools to engage government, systems and individuals about how policies and practices work to disadvantage and harm racially marginalized populations," states the organization. "For instance, applying a critical race lens to the issue of mandatory minimum prison sentences helps us focus on the over-policing of Black youth (making them more likely to be searched, arrested, and tried for minor offenses)." 

How does CRT affect education?

CRT aims, in general, to help children contextualize and call out racial inequities that play out every day in U.S. schools. 

For example, a 2019 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study that analyzed federal data of 32 million students at 96,000 U.S. schools found that Black students are disciplined with suspensions, arrests and expulsions "at rates much higher" than white students and are likelier to be viewed as "problematic" than white peers, even when exhibiting the same behavior. "These findings suggest that acknowledging that racial biases and racial disparities in education go hand-in-hand may be an important step in resolving both of these social ills," wrote the study authors. According to the UNCF (United Negro College Fund), as a result of disproportionate discipline, Black students miss out on classroom time, while other statistics compiled by the organization found that Black students are enrolled in schools with less qualified teachers or who are paid less, and that students of color attend schools with fewer resources than white students.        

According to Chanelle Wilson, an assistant professor of education in the Bryn Mawr/Haverford Colleges Education Program, and the director of Africana Studies at Bryn Mawr College, general inequities explain why teachers, 79 percent of whom are white, according to 2017-2018 data published by the National Center for Education Statistics, shouldn't teach colorblindness.    

"That doesn't help teachers understand in systematic ways what some students experience," Wilson tells Yahoo Life. "If students aren't doing well or their neighborhood is in decline, one might think, 'These children don't want to learn; these parents don't care' and the blame is centered on individuals rather than recognizing that they are caught up in a system." 

Wilson says CRT should be taught from a very young age — a view endorsed by the American Psychological Association, which found through 2020 research that parents (regardless of race) delay race conversations with kids until age 5, therefore underestimating children's comprehension of these topics. In fact, states the organization, "Previous research has shown that 3-month-old babies prefer faces from certain racial groups, 9-month-olds use race to categorize faces, and 3-year-old children in the U.S. associate some racial groups with negative traits. By age 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school."  

"Ideally, we would teach children that people are different and that people's differences were used to separate and create hierarchy and as tools of power and inequity," says Wilson. "It feels heavy, but children of color already feel it…" She adds, "When people are against CRT, they don't recognize that it [helps] navigate a system that's so well-built and ingrained that we don't have to do anything in order for it to operate."

The current CRT debate

Wilson credits the CRT debate in part to ongoing police shootings of Black people, which are routinely broadcasted by social media, and the divisive language that was a hallmark of the Trump administration. According to the Washington Post, which has kept a running log of fatal shootings by on-duty police officers since 2015, Black people are killed by police at more than twice the rate of white people in the U.S. "Radical racism began to scare many white people, who became angry and frustrated enough to do something about it," says Wilson. "And many of them are."

In 2019, the New York Times Magazine published a package of essays called "The 1619 Project" to mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to the U.S. The essays, which examined how slavery paved American education, pop culture, legal systems and the economy, inspired the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting (which is not associated with the Pulitzer Prizes) to create a K-12 curriculum around it. 

“Teaching history requires considering all the facts available to us, including those that are uncomfortable like the history of enslavement and discrimination in America towards people of color and people who are perceived as different," Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, tells Yahoo Life. "It requires us to help our students discern fact from fiction and reach an opinion, or conclusion, not ignoring the facts. That’s why we are developing invaluable and nuanced lesson plans — like those from the 1619 Project — to help educators tackle the hard conversations around our country’s history, and its impact on today and tomorrow."  

A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Education tells Yahoo Life that the government organization "is not involved in curriculum at the local level" however, "We do believe that it is important that all students see themselves in their curriculum and that our education systems ensure that every student has the opportunity to succeed — no matter their background, circumstance, or zip code.”

Protests and bans      

But in some states, parents who protest CRT have withdrawn their children from schools that teach it, including a family who moved from California to Utah to escape its "racist" overtones — later finding that it's wholly embraced by their new school district, too. In September, former President Donald Trump banned critical race theory, what his office called "divisive, un-American propaganda training sessions" that enforce the belief "that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country" for government workers. Trump also established the 1776 Commission to promote "patriotism" in education, claiming that teaching about "systemic racism" fuels discrimination. 

And although President Biden has reversed both orders, 16 states, including Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma, are advancing proposals to ban CRT in schools. On May 24, Tennessee passed one such law, with Gov. Bill Lee stating that students should understand “the exceptionalism of our nation,” not lessons that “inherently divide” them. And Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called Project 1619 a "myth" that spouted "woke" philosophies. "When parents send their children to school, they want their students to learn critical thinking without being indoctrinated with misinformation, charging that America and our Constitution are rooted in racism," he said (despite the Constitution having been established during slavery, which framers knew but did not address). In March, Florida governor Ron DeSantis said of CRT, "Teaching kids to hate their country and to hate each other is not worth one red cent of taxpayer money." 

The bans put teachers in an awkward position. For example, in Oklahoma, where 100 years ago the Tulsa Race Massacre, in which a violent mob of white people destroyed the Tulsa Black neighborhood of Greenwood and officially killed 37 residents (though some estimates are as high as 300), high school teacher Telannia Norfar's students are eager to learn about major events that touch on race. 

"But how do we do that without opening Oklahoma City public schools up to a lawsuit?" she told NPR. While Oklahoma City School Board Paula Lewis explained to the outlet, "What if they say the wrong thing? What if somebody in their class during the critical thinking brings up the word oppression or systemic racism? Are they in danger? Is their job in danger?"  

Vincent Wong, a research associate for the African American Policy Forum, tells Yahoo Life that "the media conversation around critical race theory is interesting, because at a high level, critical race theory simply tells us to pay attention to race and institutions, to pay attention to our history and to understand how that history continues to play a role in creating differential outcomes." Yet, he adds, "for the organized anti-CRT campaign, the point is not to debate CRT but to set it up as a boogeyman that captures all racial anxieties …by toxifying CRT and refusing to accurately define it, [people] are able to effectively incite a moral panic, push forward blatantly unconstitutional laws and censor a whole range of anti-racist speech."          

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